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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Bridge renderings prompt thoughtful opinions

The Columbian
Published: May 30, 2023, 6:03am

There are variations of this axiom, but we’ll go with a relatively tasteful one: Opinions are like noses; everybody has one and none of them are perfect.

So it is with design concepts for a new Interstate 5 Bridge. The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program last week released renderings of six preliminary, vague options for a new bridge across the Columbia River. Those include four single-level bridges, one stacked bridge and one with a lift span.

The concepts have quickly generated varying opinions from people who will end up paying for the bridge — meaning all of us. Wholly embracing the notion of utilitarian architecture, the designs are sparse and functional rather than ornate and majestic. The new bridge might help move people from one side of the river to the other, but it will not become a recognizable icon of the region like, say, the Golden Gate Bridge.

And that is OK. Substance is destined to take precedent over style for a new Interstate 5 Bridge, given the limitations of the project.

One of those limitations is the height of the bridge. Because of the proximity of Pearson Field in Vancouver and Portland International Airport, a new bridge must be low enough to not interfere with air traffic. Elaborate towers or ornamentations are not an option.

As Program Administrator Greg Johnson said: “If we were to say ‘FAA be damned, we’re going to build a cable-stayed or suspension with towers that extend permanently into their airspace’ the states would incur insurance risk for any incident that may happen. It’s about being a good partner … by doing things that won’t cause the FAA grief.”

Another limitation is cost. Critics are quick to decry any bells and whistles that increase the price of the bridge without improving functionality, helping to maintain focus on the purpose of the span — to move people and freight while enhancing the local economy.

Devising an I-5 Bridge concept is akin to threading a needle. It must be high enough to allow river traffic to pass below, yet not so high to interfere with air traffic. It must fit within narrow corridors of development on each bank of the river. And it must limit environmental impacts while increasing capacity and fitting with a broader plan to improve access from connecting routes. That inherently limits the options.

In considering those options, one concept immediately creates a stench; plans for a drawbridge should be rejected. As another axiom suggests, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. A drawbridge would fail to fix one of the major problems of the current bridge.

Bridge planners appear unlikely to approve a drawbridge, but the U.S. Coast Guard, which governs river traffic, requested the study of a lift span. Officials should duly consider the concept, but we are confident it would create as many problems as it solves.

Beyond that, there is little aesthetic difference between the remaining concepts. The two-level truss idea is an intriguing outlier, but more details are needed before an opinion can be formed. This design would have light rail, bicycle and pedestrian traffic on a second level below the roadway, allowing for a narrower bridge.

The four concepts of a single-deck span call to mind the functional, sensible design of the Interstate 205 Bridge upriver. Judging from preliminary renderings, the “extradosed” has more flair than the other designs and is the most attractive.

On the other hand, that is just our opinion.