Will the I-5 Vancouver to Portland bridge replacement project fail again?

By MARK HARMSWORTH  | 
May 4, 2021
BLOG

When the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) bridge replacement project spectacularly failed in 2013, it wasn’t due to lack of effort or funding. The project morphed from a congestion relief and safety project into an expansion of light rail which was not the original goal of the project. The transportation departments of Washington and Oregon spent a combined $196.6 million taxpayer dollars on the 2013 effort and have no bridge or plan to show for the money.

The 2013 plan called for light rail to be added to the bridge between Vancouver and Portland which would have significantly lowered the bridge deck. The lower deck would have restricted river traffic and would have reduced traffic congestion times by an estimate of only 1 minute since very little new road capacity was included in the bridge design. After the U.S. Coast Guard dismissed the lower height as inadequate for navigation and the economic needs of the state, legislators were rightly concerned about the plan.

As a result, the Washington Legislature decided not to fund Washington’s portion of the bridge, rejecting the statewide 10.5 cent gas tax increase funding source, and the project was shutdown.

In 2017, a new study committee was formed (Senate Bill 5806) to re-examine the failures of the previous project and open the discussion to other options.

Now it seems, the project appears to be going down the same failed path again.

The Willamette Week is reporting that United States Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D – Oregon) has stated there will be no support for a bridge without light rail and he will actively oppose any other options. Blumenauer, who is a supporter of light rail, was quoted as saying, "If I have anything to say about it, [the Columbia River bridge] will never be built unless it does.”

The inclusion of light rail in 2013 derailed the project and is likely to do so again.

While replacement of the existing I-5 bridge is critical, BRT instead of light rail or a third bridge option may also be considered by the committee and would likely receive wide support in the communities on both sides of the river. Local legislators have indicated that they are willing to work on a solution that will help address the issue of traffic congestion and freight mobility and have suggested Rep. Blumenauer reach out to the committee to see how the process has been working.

Washington Sen. Ann Rivers (R – La Center) was quoted in the Willamette Week. “As someone who opposed the failed [CRC] project because it became more about extending light rail and less about reducing freeway congestion and increasing freight mobility,” said Rivers, “I believe it would be foolish to go down that road again.”

While there is concern that the federal transportation dollars from the proposed stimulus packages would be tied to expansion of transit, focusing on light rail as the primary solution will not solve the pressing need for congestion relief on the I-5 corridor and will cause the project to fail again.

Relieving traffic congestion and improving mobility should be a top priority for this corridor. Instead, it seems that rail is the priority instead.

The replacement-bridge committee is continuing to meet, discuss and receive feedback from the public. You can follow the progress of the committee here.