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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: It’s too soon to answer this I-5 Bridge question

The Columbian
Published: June 14, 2024, 6:03am

One of the irrefutable laws of government is that when the weight of the paperwork equals or exceeds the weight of the project, the work can actually begin.

With that in mind, who is surprised that the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project isn’t fully planned, let alone underway?

Apparently, two Republican state lawmakers from Vancouver. At Monday’s meeting of stakeholders from both Oregon and Washington, state Sen. Lynda Wilson and Rep. Paul Harris pressed Interstate Bridge Replacement Program officials about whether eminent domain proceedings will be used to acquire property in the project’s right of way. (For those lucky enough not to know, eminent domain is where the government can take you to court to force you to sell all or part of your private property, or grant an easement, for a public project like a road.)

Let’s acknowledge that the lawmakers are asking a very good question. Apparently, the last time the freeway was expanded through Vancouver, which was as long ago as the lifespan of an African elephant, some houses had to be acquired. Depending on the specifics of this project, it could happen again. Specifically, neighbors along K Street, east of the freeway and north of Fourth Plain Boulevard, have been concerned over the years, with some displaying “Don’t take our property!” signs.

But, Wilson and Harris are asking this question too early to get an informed answer. Or, as project leader Greg Johnson told them, “We do not get to a final footprint until we have officially a record of decision, which will come next year. We’re getting information out to folks on what this preliminary footprint looks like and what those impacts could possibly be. But we cannot go into real estate discussions until we have a record of decision.”

Here’s the situation: Although planning for the bridge has been underway for several years, and some documents from the failed Columbia River Crossing proposal were useful, there is still a ton (many tons?) of paperwork to be completed.

The project needs a Draft Environmental Impact Statement before anything can be decided about the route. It was due out last year but was postponed again and again. The latest guess, reiterated at Monday’s meeting, is that it will be ready sometime this year.

Then, and only then, the exact place for the bridge and the bridge approaches can be platted. These decisions will likely be affected by yet another document that comes from the U.S. Coast Guard: A permit saying how high the bridge can be. Again, no decision yet.

At this point it probably bears repeating that Interstate 5 crosses the Columbia River at probably the least convenient point along its 1,243 mile length. Any new bridge needs to be tall enough to protect commercial shipping, but low enough not to interfere with aircraft approach patterns to Pearson Field and Portland International Airport. We want to drive across this bridge, walk on it, ride our bikes and, yes, take the train. The bridge must avoid interfering with the BNSF Railway main line, but connect to state Highway 14. Oh, and don’t interfere with the national historic site or the burgeoning development at The Waterfront Vancouver. No wonder it makes the planners woozy.

Project officials still think construction could be underway before Dec. 31, 2025. Let’s hope so.

In the meantime it’s way too early to know which houses may, or may not, have to be demolished to make way for what surely will be an engineering marvel and a paperwork mammoth.