You might say that Vancouver’s biggest export is labor. Although it borders on cliché, there is a grain of truth to it.
About 65,000 Clark County residents commuted to Portland for work in 2019, with only 17,000 going the other way.
But Mike Bomar, the director of economic development for the Port of Vancouver, thinks the replacement bridge has the potential to get more people headed north, opening up Clark County to a workforce of 2.4 million people to draw from — the sum of the Portland metro area.
“What this project can help us do is unlock workforce potential for that 2.4 million folks that are in the region and understand that that’s a much bigger workforce to draw from,” he explained.
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Part of this stems from increased transit options across the bridge in addition to less congestion on the bridge.
“That’s a lot of talent,” Bomar said. “Whether folks are moving back and forth, I think the idea is that you can find that job opportunity and talent can live and have some flexibility within the region and still have access to high-quality jobs as well too.”
Striving for solution to unpredictability of bridge lifts
Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes knows the ripple effects the current Interstate 5 Bridge causes firsthand.
Growing up on the Oregon Coast, he worked for his family’s small industrial parts business that sold equipment to timber and fishing interests in Astoria. As a 16-year-old with a newly minted driver’s license, one of his jobs was to drive to pick up stock and special orders in Portland, causing him to drive over the bridge.
In the 1980s, the bridge saw about 90,000 average weekday crossings. Today it sees about 130,000. Average weekday crossings over the Glenn Jackson Bridge have roughly doubled over that time period with 150,000 crossings today.
He learned the unpredictability and unreliability associated with congestion and bridge lifts, not just in Vancouver.
“It isn’t really about what’s happening right here in the bridge influence area or in the greater Vancouver-Portland metro,” he said, “but it is a piece of infrastructure that has national significance and is more pronounced on the entirety of the West Coast.”
Now, as Vancouver’s city manager, he is helping to usher in the bridge’s replacement; a solution for the next 100 years.
Thompson Metal Fab president supports I-5 Bridge replacement
You know that moment when you’re traveling north and you get to the top of the Interstate 5 Bridge’s hump and all of the traffic suddenly disappears?
It’s what John Rudi, president of Thompson Metal Fabrication, calls “the miracle of Vancouver.”
You may not have heard of Thompson, but there’s a good chance you’ve seen the company’s work: Thompson manufactured the Y columns that hold up the Portland International Airport’s new roof. Other Thompson projects include work in California on the Bay Area Rapid Transit and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Like other metal fab companies in the Portland metro area, Thompson does a significant amount of infrastructure work, which Rudi attributes as a lasting effect of the historical Kaiser shipyards, which occupied the area that’s now known as the Columbia Business Center — where Thompson is based.
They are one of the four upstream manufacturers who use about the maximum amount of clearance the current bridge offers, 178 feet. The replacement is proposing 116 feet.
The loads are massive. A single bridge lift can be the result of 18 months and hundreds of thousands of man hours.
Still, Rudi views a replacement bridge as critical.
When asked how a replacement bridge will affect the region in 50 to 100 years, Rudi said: “What will the current bridge look like in 50 to 100 years? It will be a wreck.”
Dust control to be a factor during bridge replacement work
Significant ink has been spilled decrying the state of the Interstate 5 Bridge.
It’s practically common knowledge that the aging structure wouldn’t survive the Big One. Locals are fully aware that zipping across the bridge during rush hour is an oxymoron. And who doesn’t know that it’s home to the only stoplight on I-5 between Canada to Mexico?
But significantly less coverage has been focused on topics like, for example, dust control during the project’s construction.
It may seem insignificant now, dwarfed by news about the Oregon Legislature, tolling and the Coast Guard’s insistence on studying the construction of a taller bridge, for example. But dust control will be critical for those who live near the project.
Imagine another 115-degree day, said replacement program administrator Greg Johnson.
Construction will be noisy, dust will be flying; if someone opens a window to get a breeze, they might be greeted by a cloud of dust instead.
“We want to make sure that those types of contingency situations are planned for folks who are living within the impact area of the construction,” Johnson explained.
“We want to make sure that we are addressing those contingent issues that could happen and making sure that people can once again live their lives in a semi-normal way for the 10 years of construction that’s going to happen,” he added.
Johnson knows firsthand the negative impacts transportation projects can have. Growing up, the Michigan Department of Transportation forced his family to move so a highway could be built on the home’s land.
“The expectation that this will leave a positive impact on the communities is now the norm,” he said. “Before, in the old days of the DOTs, we’d build it and say, ‘Guess what, your benefit is that you can use it.’ That’s not an acceptable answer in today’s society.”
The community benefits discussion will start this summer.
Tolls unlikely to deter truck drivers, official says
Nearly every weekday, as the sun pokes over the Cascades and illuminates downtown Vancouver, a steady line of semitrucks march east on Mill Plain Boulevard toward Interstate 5.
It’s a common sight to Portland commuters, but it wasn’t always quite like this.
Although traffic may feel like it has gotten significantly worse since the early 2000s, general traffic only increased 5 percent between 2005 and 2009. Freight traffic, on the other hand, increased by 28 percent, according to the Port of Vancouver.
Freight traffic nationally is anticipated to grow about 21 percent over the next 10 years, according to Sheri Call, president and CEO of the Washington Trucking Association.
A common worry is that when tolls are put in place on the I-5 Bridge, likely in 2026, it will cause general and truck traffic to divert to the Interstate 205 Bridge — or even the interstate bridges in Longview or the Oregon cities of Hood River and Astoria — to avoid the toll.
Call doesn’t share the worry.
“There is a toll on the driver sitting there doing nothing in traffic,” Call said. “That’s not the preferred way to do your job when you’re in trucking.”
Generally, it’s about getting from Point A to Point B as quickly, and safely, as possible. Hours are federally mandated and set at 11 in a 14-hour workday after 10 consecutive hours off duty and a maximum of 60 on-duty hours in a week.
As a result, it’s not uncommon for drivers to wait out the congestion and travel across the bridge during off-peak times now, she said.
“A truck driver would want to spend that time being productive,” Call said, “which means wheels are rolling and not sitting idling in traffic.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.