The team leading the project to replace the Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver is being pulled in two different directions.
On one side, local leaders in the Portland metro area are pushing for a new bridge that focuses on safety, adding public transportation and bike/pedestrian options across the Columbia River, and centering equity and environmental goals in the process.
They’re feeling mounting pressure from climate and mass transit activists to scale back the project and implement tolls to help change bridge users’ behavior.
On the other hand, several state lawmakers within the Oregon and Washington legislatures have made it clear they want a larger bridge with more lanes aimed at alleviating traffic and facilitating the movement of freight.
Project staff heard differing opinions in two meetings that took place Thursday and Friday from dozens of leaders who will soon make critical decisions on the future of the bridge.
In those meetings, deputy project manager John Willis — who oversees aspects such as planning, engineering and design — presented the bridge team’s preferred path forward, the design scenario the team will begin researching in greater detail to include analysis of things such as traffic and environmental impacts, as well as cost.
No less than nine governments will be involved in considering those impacts and deciding whether the bridge gets built now or is put off for another 23 years.
Willis said the team’s preferred option is a bridge that includes three lanes and one “auxiliary” lane, for a total of four lanes in either direction — just one more lane than the current set of bridges which were built in 1917 (northbound) and 1958 (southbound).
Planners say auxiliary lanes are designed to help traffic merge, enter and exit the bridge. Critics of the current bridge plan, such as Joe Cortright, an economist and member of the group NoMoreFreeways, say these lanes are painted as additional to regular freeway lanes, but that his group’s independent analysis of the bridge’s footprint suggests it would be wide enough to re-striped in the future for as many 10.
The project team also revealed plans to limit the interchange on Hayden Island to just a northbound entry and 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.
Outside of not building a new I-5 bridge at all, project staff also presented a third alternative. That scenario would include three lanes in either direction, plus two auxiliary lanes, for a total of five lanes in each direction. But staff don’t support that option.
Both the pro-build options are smaller than the last attempt to replace the I-5 bridge. The failed Columbia River Crossing proposal originally included 12 lanes total, six in either direction, but was not built after Washington state lawmakers walked away from the project nearly 10 years ago due to the inclusion of light rail.
Although there are still many meetings and votes to come, the basic plan for the replacement bridge has come into focus over the past few weeks. Along with making clear they prefer the eight-lane option, project staff also recently recommended the new bridge include light rail as its public transit option rather than express bus lines.
This week two different groups met to debate and plan the replacement bridge: On Thursday, members of the bridge project’s executive steering group — which includes elected leaders, port and transportation officials and other representatives from both sides of the river — were given time to ask questions and provide feedback on the recommendation by project staff.
Steering group member and Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty noted that the tension between all the competing interests in the bridge project has, so far, provided for a healthy discussion of the project’s scope and size. She highlighted the reduction of 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 before us a project recommendation that appears to be acceptable with certain conditions that help ensure the project delivers on its goals,” Hardesty said.
Oregon Metro Council President Lynn Peterson was similarly complimentary of the process, commending project staff for public outreach and a commitment to listening to communities on both sides of the river. No action was taken.
Friday’s meeting involved a bi-state legislative committee working on the bridge. It did not go as smoothly.
Washington state Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-Clark County, both expressed concerns about the recommendations from project staff. They noted the proposed bridge lawmakers and planners considered in 2014.
“I’m really concerned that every single time we have another meeting, the footprint gets smaller and smaller,” Wilson said.
Rivers raised concerns that inflation is causing the project’s price tag to skyrocket despite being pared down from the 2014 design concept.
The Columbia River Crossing project was estimated to cost around $3.5 billion. Estimates for this new iteration of the project range from $3.2 billion to $4.8 billion.
“I guess this falls in the broad heading of ‘Be careful what you kill,’ because maybe the next thing that comes along isn’t any better or perhaps is even worse,” Rivers said.
On several occasions, lawmakers said they were unhappy with answers to their questions or were unhappy answers they felt should be readily available were not.
Oregon state Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, was particularly dissatisfied with confusion surrounding the next steps in the process, having misunderstood a request from lead project administrator Greg Johnson on whether or not a vote would be taken to advance the bridge scenario the team had presented to them.
Johnson clarified that Friday’s meeting was simply to gain feedback and answer questions so the team has time to take those comments, research them and bring them back for further discussion at another meeting scheduled for later this month.
He noted that feedback on wanting to research the two-auxiliary-lane scenario would be taken to heart and that these concepts represent just 2% of the design process. That research would include environmental impact statements, traffic modeling and fiscal studies.
“I’m encouraged to hear (Johnson) say that we can still investigate things that might expand lanes, increasing freight movement, that kind of thing as we move forward,” Rivers said. “I thank the indulgence of my fellow committee members in their understanding of feeling like much of what we have requested hasn’t been reflected.”
Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, offered a different perspective at Friday’s meeting and reverted to the thankful tone provided by some members of the executive steering group.
Power appreciates the fact that the project staff is having to thread a needle through the various interests of all those at the table who will be asked to weigh in on where this project goes.
“I represent a district where the bulk of folks I hear from want a bridge that is not enlarged at all,” Power said. “That is a balanced interest along with the rest of the balanced interests that this team is trying to strike.”
Johnson said the project staff will host further discussions on the modified preferred scenario with the legislative committee in two weeks on Friday, May 20.
That will be one of the last opportunities for both committees to weigh in before voting in June to move forward with this scenario into further design and research phases this summer. The final adoption of the plan will take place sometime in July.
Meanwhile, the Just Crossing Alliance — an organization composed of several groups, including climate justice activists and public transportation advocates‚ pushing for the bridge project to scale back — released a statement Thursday saying the project team’s scenario falls short on multiple fronts.
The joint statement circulated by Brett Morgan of Thousand Friends of Oregon criticized the project’s preferred path forward for not meeting goals of lowering carbon emissions, transit demands and equity.
“We are eager to work with local elected officials in the weeks ahead to secure commitments from the (bridge) team that this project will be in line with our region’s values before they vote to approve the design,” the statement said.