Building bridges can be difficult — literally and metaphorically. So it is no surprise that efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge have endured setbacks recently.
The most important thing about recent developments is that planners, elected officials, community leaders and citizens remain engaged and transparent about the process. Community discussions and the airing of ideas are essential to eventually developing a consensus that can move the project forward.
But understanding the process and being aware of established facts also is essential. At times, progress can appear impossible — particularly when debates that seemed settled are renewed.
That is the case with revelations regarding the possibility of a drawbridge replacing the drawbridge that has been in place for a century. As is often pointed out, the bridge is the only stoplight on I-5 between Canada and Mexico.
The U.S. Coast Guard and the federal government have requested the study of a “movable span” option; current plans — which have not been finalized — call for a fixed-span bridge with 116 feet of clearance. Organizers will study both a lift span similar to the current bridge, and a bascule system like the Burnside Bridge over the Willamette River in Portland.
Greg Johnson, administrator of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, told The Columbian that a drawbridge would likely cost $500 million more than a fixed span. He noted that the earlier Columbia River Crossing project received approval from the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transportation Agency for a fixed-span bridge.
“I would be totally shocked if we can’t get to a fixed span,” Johnson said.
In making the request for a new study, the Coast Guard cited increasingly tall vessels traveling to the metro area, requiring higher clearance. But vessels traveling upstream on the Columbia River to dock in Portland do not travel under the I-5 Bridge.
“While it may be true that the river navigation and business usage along the river in the larger metro area has changed, the navigation needs under the Interstate Bridge have not, according to our analysis,” Johnson said.
The thought of a drawbridge should be anathema to supporters of a replacement bridge. It would fail to meet one of the primary goals of a new bridge and would create lasting problems. For a bridge that sees an average of 130,000 vehicle crossings a day, a drawbridge that would temporarily bring traffic to a standstill should be rejected.
That does not mean that alternatives should not be studied. But when studies are conducted, the conclusions must be heeded — which brings us to Vancouver City Councilor Ty Stober.
In the wake of news about studying a drawbridge option, Stober wrote on Facebook: “If the IBR program is being required to study other options, a drawbridge is exactly the option they should not study … I am calling on the IBR team to do a fresh, complete study of a tunnel.”
This gives hope to advocates of a tunnel — but it flies in the face of reality. As Johnson has said: “It creates so many other problems. It’s not feasible to do, and it doesn’t meet purpose and need.”
Most problematic is the fact that the terminus of a tunnel would have to be far north of downtown Vancouver, defeating the purpose of a new bridge. This and other drawbacks were thoroughly vetted during the CRC process.
And yet, debate about the best way to improve commuting and transit in the region continues. It’s all part of the process, because building bridges is difficult.