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Restarted bridge project should proceed

Five years after plans for a new Columbia River bridge on Interstate 5 collapsed amid bickering between Oregon and Washington, the state’s governors have vowed to restart the project. That’s a needed move, and leaders on both sides of the river should endeavor to avoid the missteps that plagued the Columbia River Crossing project.

The need is undeniable. Interstate 5 is the primary West Coast artery, carrying vital freight traffic as well as automobiles. The existing drawbridge is a choke point, creating a dangerous bottleneck at high-traffic times. It’s also getting even older and poses a risk of failure in a major earthquake.

The project won’t be cheap, but with both states contributing money to match federal highway funding, and tolls paid by those who use the bridge to help pay off bonds sold by the two states, it’s doable.

The political obstacles could well be more formidable than the financial one. The Columbia River Crossing project, after 10 years of planning, was shot down in 2014 by Washington state lawmakers who objected to tolls and plans to extend Portland’s light-rail system across the bridge to Vancouver. They succeeded in defeating $450 million in funding in the Washington Legislature. Oregon lawmakers had already approved this state’s $450 million share.

Other opponents included environmental groups who objected to a project they saw as encouraging motor vehicle traffic.

But like it or not, motor vehicles aren’t going away anytime soon, and traffic jams only increase the pollution generated by idling engines. Light rail, which must be part of any new bridge design, would offer a more efficient alternative to motor vehicles.

The original project also was plagued by engineering problems, including an early design that was too low for some ship traffic. A revived project should avoid flaws like that.

The memorandum of intent signed by Govs. Kate Brown and Jay Inslee is non-binding, but both leaders said Monday they think the project can become a reality this time. The two states are spending $44 million to set up a new bridge project office, and a report on how to revive the project is expected a year from now.

This might not sound like an issue that concerns Southern Oregon, but the efficient movement of freight on Interstate 5 affects shippers and consumers here. That’s why business interests who often resist major tax-supported public works projects supported it last time and likely will again.

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