Fights over tracks, light rail and costs loom as Interstate 5 bridge talks get serious
The team leading the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project between Portland and Vancouver is being pulled in two different directions.
On the one hand, local leaders in the Portland metro area are pushing for a new bridge that focuses on safety, adding public transit and bike/pedestrian options over the Columbia River, and centering equity goals and environmental in the process.
They are feeling growing pressure from climate and transit activists to scale back the project and implement tolls to help change the behavior of bridge users.
On the other hand, several state lawmakers in the Oregon and Washington legislatures have made it clear that they want a taller bridge with more lanes aimed at reducing traffic and facilitating the movement of goods.
Project staff heard differing opinions at two meetings Thursday and Friday of dozens of leaders who will soon be making crucial decisions about the bridge’s future.
At these meetings, Deputy Project Manager John Willis – who oversees aspects such as planning, engineering and design – presented the bridge team’s preferred way forward, the design scenario that the team will begin to study in more detail to include analysis of things such as traffic and environmental impacts, as well as costs.
No fewer than nine governments will be involved in reviewing these impacts and deciding whether the bridge will be built now or delayed for 23 years.
Willis said the team’s preferred option is a bridge that includes three lanes and an “auxiliary” lane, for a total of four lanes in either direction – just one lane more than the current set of bridges that were built in 1917 (to the north) and 1958 (to the south).
Planners say the auxiliary lanes are designed to help traffic merge in and out of the bridge. Critics of the current bridge plan, such as Joe Cortright, an economist and member of the NoMoreFreeways group, argue that these lanes are painted in addition to regular freeway lanes, but that his group’s independent analysis of the bridge’s footprint suggests it would be wide enough to re-scratch in the future for as many as 10.
The project team also revealed plans to limit the interchange on Hayden Island to one northbound entrance and one southbound exit rather than both in each direction. As part of building a replacement for the I-5 Bridge, the project team would also rebuild the North Portland Harbor Bridge, which connects the Delta Park area to Hayden Island.
In addition to not building a new I-5 bridge at all, project staff also presented a third alternative. This scenario would include three lanes in both directions, plus two auxiliary lanes, for a total of five lanes in each direction. But the staff does not support this option.
Both pro-build options are smaller than the last attempted I-5 bridge replacement. The failed Columbia River Crossing proposal originally included 12 total lanes, six in each direction, but was not built after Washington state lawmakers walked away from the project nearly a year ago. 10 years due to inclusion of light rail.
While there are still many meetings and votes to come, the basic plan for the replacement bridge has been finalized over the past few weeks. In addition to making it clear that they preferred the eight-lane option, project staff also recently recommended that the new bridge include light rail as a transit option rather than express bus lines.
This week, two different groups met to discuss and plan the replacement bridge: On Thursday, members of the bridge project’s Executive Steering Group – which includes elected leaders, port and transport officials and other both sides of the river – had time to ask questions and provide feedback on the recommendation by project staff.
Jo Ann Hardesty, steering group member and Portland City Commissioner, noted that the tension between all of the competing interests in the bridge project has, so far, allowed for a healthy discussion about the scope and size of the project. She highlighted reducing vehicle miles traveled and carbon emissions as two key issues for the city of Portland.
“After a lot of work at this table…we finally have in front of us a project recommendation that seems acceptable with certain conditions that help ensure that the project meets its objectives,” Hardesty said.
Oregon Metro Council President Lynn Peterson also praised the process, praising project staff for their public outreach and commitment to listening to communities on both sides of the river. No action has been taken.
Friday’s meeting involved a bi-state legislative committee working on the bridge. It didn’t go so well.
Washington State Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-Clark County, both expressed concern about the project staff’s recommendations. They noted the proposals lawmakers and bridge planners reviewed in 2014.
“I’m really concerned that every time we have another meeting, the footprint gets smaller and smaller,” Wilson said.
Rivers raised concerns that inflation is causing the price of the project to skyrocket despite its reduction from the 2014 design concept.
The Columbia River Crossing project has been estimated at around $3.5 billion. Estimates for this new iteration of the project range from $3.2 billion to $4.8 billion.
“I guess it falls under the general heading ‘Be careful what you kill’ because maybe the next thing that comes along isn’t better or maybe even worse,” Rivers said.
Repeatedly, lawmakers have said they are either unhappy with the answers to their questions or unhappy with the answers they believe should be readily available.
Oregon State Representative Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, was particularly unhappy with the confusion surrounding the next steps in the process, having misunderstood a request from senior project administrator Greg Johnson on the whether or not a vote would be taken to move the bridge scenario forward. the team had presented to them.
Johnson clarified that Friday’s meeting was simply to get feedback and answer questions so the team would have time to take that feedback, research it and bring it back for further discussion at another meeting. scheduled for later this month.
He noted that feedback on wanting to research the two-way sideline storyline would be taken to heart and that these concepts are only 2% of the design process. This research would include environmental impact statements, traffic modeling and tax studies.
“I’m encouraged to hear (Johnson) say that we can still investigate things that might widen lanes, increase the movement of goods, that sort of thing as we move forward,” Rivers said. “I appreciate the indulgence of my fellow committee members in their understanding of the feeling that much of what we asked for has not been reflected.”
Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, offered a different perspective during Friday’s meeting and returned to the appreciative tone provided by some members of the executive leadership group.
Power appreciates that project staff have to thread a needle through the diverse interests of everyone at the table who will be asked to influence the progress of this project.
“I represent a district where the majority of people I hear from want a bridge that isn’t expanded at all,” Power said. “It’s a balanced interest with the rest of the balanced interests that this team is trying to hit.”
Johnson said project staff would come back with a modified preferred scenario to present to the steering group and the legislative committee in two weeks – Thursday, May 19 and Friday, May 20, respectively.
This will be one of the last opportunities for both committees to step in before voting in June to advance this scenario into further design and research phases this summer. The final adoption of the plan will take place during the month of July.
Meanwhile, the Just Crossing Alliance – an organization made up of several groups including climate justice activists and public transport advocates‚ lobbying for the bridge project to be scaled back – released a statement on Thursday saying the scenario of the project team was insufficient on several fronts.
The joint statement released by Brett Morgan of Thousand Friends of Oregon criticized the project’s preferred path for failing to meet targets for reducing carbon emissions, transit demands and equity.
“We look forward to working with local elected officials in the coming weeks to secure commitment from the (bridge) team that this project will be in line with the values of our region before they vote to approve the design,” says the press release.