April 17 Daily News Editorial

After six years of study — and plenty of bickering among officials in the Portland-Vancouver area — one point bears repeating concerning the proposed replacement of the bridge that carries Interstate Route 5 over the Columbia River.

The I in I-5 stands for Interstate. It doesn't stand for "I" as in the personal pronoun and personal agendas.

Planning for a new bridge, which has cost $115 million in taxpayers' money so far, has stalled as Portland-Vancouver area politicians lose track of the project's major objectives.

I-5 is the major road up and down the West Coast. The current Columbia River bridge is used by about 135,000 drivers on a typical weekday, most of whom don't live in Portland or Vancouver. This is a bridge for people who drive from Castle Rock to Salem, from Kelso to Portland, from Seattle to Los Angeles. It doesn't belong only to Portland and Vancouver.

We agree with the vast majority of bridge planners that a new structure is needed. The twin spans linking Vancouver and Jantzen Beach are aging, with one of them 94 years old. It's also the only drawbridge on I-5, with traffic sometimes halted while sections are raised to permit ships to pass underneath.

Business interests favor a new bridge because snarled traffic slows down would-be shoppers and delays the delivery of goods.

The debate over whether Clark County should hold an advisory vote about whether to build a new bridge at all appears to be another obstructionist tactic. We reiterate, it's not just your bridge.

Now expected to cost $3.6 billion, the Columbia River Crossing project would replace the existing twin three-lane drawbridges with a 10-lane river crossing, extend light rail from Portland's Expo Center to Clark College in Vancouver and improve five miles of freeway and interchanges in Oregon and Washington.

There's legitimate debate over which of three designs, which range in price from $340 to $430 million, is the best combination of aesthetics and value.

Though federal regulations don't require accomodating light rail as part of the project, the six agencies involved in bridge planning all favor it, and so do we. With gas approaching $4 per gallon, we think it would be shortsighted to build a bridge that may be used for at least half a century without allowing for its use by a commuter rail system.

Bridge planners anticipate a three-way cost split between Washington and Oregon, the federal government and local revenue generated by tolls.

Not surprisingly, tolls are unpopular in the Vancouver area, home of thousands of people who commute to work in Portland. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt made opposition to tolls a focus of his 2009 campaign, though he's backed away from that position since he was elected. However, in Washington, a decision to toll will be made by the state legislature and Transportation Commission, not Vancouver officials.

While tolls might be deemed acceptable as user fees on roads traveled primarily by commuters, we dislike their use on arterial highways. Any toll placed on I-5 would also drive a large amount of traffic to the nearby crossing on I-205.

With everyone so busy wrangling over plans, we'd like to see one emerge that preserves both I-5 and I-205 as toll-free. That solution may prove elusive in today's budget-cutting environment, but it's worth seeking out while personal and civic agendas collide upriver.

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