More than 10 years ago, Washington and Oregon came together to figure out how to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River – and ended up doing nothing. Now they want to try again.
During this past legislative session, Senate Bill 5806 was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee establishing a bi-partisan committee from Washington to work with legislators from Oregon. Their task is to re-start the process of figuring out what to do with the worn out I-5 Columbia River bridge crossings.
The issues that need to be solved are congestion, freight mobility and safety.
The last formal discussions about relieving traffic congestion on I-5 around the Columbia River Bridge started back in 2005 and ended in 2013.
After a long and contentious research and discussion period, many were unhappy with the proposed fixes for the bridge and the Washington Legislature voted down funding the project.
During the eight years the project was studied, reportedly $175 million was spent. Some of the research and expenditures may benefit the new group, but certainly a significant amount of taxpayer money was wasted. The environmental impact statement alone cost $105 million, which we bet will need to done all over again.
Most people would probably agree that the current I-5 bridges over the Columbia need to be replaced or seriously upgraded. The two structures were built long ago; the bridge handling northbound traffic was built in 1917, the southbound side was built in 1958.
Some of the sticking points around the last proposal were bridge height, cost, light rail and regional traffic effects.
Businesses upstream from the proposed new bridge would have been forced to relocate because the new structure wouldn’t have enough clearance for ships to get through.
The cost of the project ballooned right from the start. The environmental impact statement’s $105 million price tag was five times more costly than originally planned. The overall project cost was projected at anywhere from $3 billion to $10 billion, depending on who you listened to.
Officials – mostly from Oregon – wanted to include a light rail extension and connection to the MAX system. Some from southwest Washington don’t want to pay for light rail, nor see the need to extend the system to Washington. Others noted that freight isn’t moved by light rail.
Another key concern was the unintended consequences of building a new bridge system and then paying for it through tolls. A 2012 study indicated a significant number of people who drive back and forth over the I-5 bridges would switch to taking the I-205 bridge if a toll was put in place.
We’ve often talked about how taxes discourage behavior. If a toll was placed on I-5, then some drivers would certainly go out of their way to avoid paying it, which would jam up traffic on I-205.
To avoid the unintended consequence of drivers re-routing to I-205, some talked about placing tolls on both highways.
The process of establishing new committees to figure out this long-standing problem isn’t going well, so far. While Washington politicians started appointing members to the new commission, Oregon politicians have not.
Oregon legislators haven’t even made a decision as to whether they’ll participate in the new group. Rick Osborn, spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick (D) said, ““There really hasn’t been a whole lot of discussion about that.”
Once representatives from the two states get together, we’d like to see a concise statement of purpose and need developed. What are the exact problems this project aims to resolve? Is the top priority reducing general congestion or is it freight mobility?
Once the purpose and need have been developed, we’d like the public to get a chance to see some of the various alternatives that meet the purpose and need criterion.
Let’s get as many of the problems and issues out in the open quickly and find solutions. Maybe this will help keep costs down.
In the end, we would like to see a common sense solutions implemented.
We’re hopeful the second time around is a charm.