February 1, 2008 Volume 109 Number 3

Task force favors I-5 Bridge replacement

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

VANCOUVER — Replacing the I-5 Interstate Bridge — and extending the TriMet light rail line to Vancouver — are now the clear choice of a 39-member task force that has been studying how to relieve the Interstate Bridge traffic bottleneck.

Columbia River Crossing, as the task force is known, was formed to make a recommendation to the Washington and Oregon transportation departments. The Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council has a voice on the task force in the person of Laborers Local 320 Business Manager Dave Tischer.

At its Jan. 22 meeting, Columbia River Crossing took a kind of straw poll.

“I think it’s high time we move forward with this,” Tischer told fellow task force members, declaring the building trades’ preference for light rail and a replacement bridge.

Not one task force member spoke in favor of other options that were being considered. Those options included: doing nothing at all; keeping the existing pair of bridges for northbound traffic and adding a supplemental bridge to carry southbound traffic; and adding bus-only lanes instead of light rail.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire had announced their preference for the replacement bridge option in a press statement the week before.

At the Jan. 22 meeting, task force members heard reports from Columbia River Crossing staff about the project’s environmental impacts, and about a proposal for tolling to help pay for the project, which also includes work on six nearby highway interchanges.

As laid out by staff, the toll would be collected electronically. Bridge users would get a transponder to place on their windshield, which would be read by roadside radio equipment; the toll would then be debited from the user’s account. Vehicles without a transponder would have their license plates photographed and would be charged a surcharge, getting a bill in the mail.

The toll would vary by time of day: For passenger cars, it would start at $2.56 each way during morning and evening peak travel times (6 to 10 a.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.); $1.92 between peaks and an hour before and after; and $1.28 from 8 p.m. to 5 am. Those figures are in 2017 dollars and are a very rough estimate based on estimated construction costs and the assumption that tolling would pay about one-third of the cost of the overall project, including the work on the interchanges. The bridge itself accounts for about a third of the estimated $3.1 to $4.2 billion cost of the overall project.

For peak hour commuters crossing five days a week, tolls would add up to about $110 a month for starters. The toll would rise with inflation and could continue for 30 to 40 years.

The task force also heard about 45 minutes of public testimony. Several union members were among those testifying, including former IBEW Local 48 business manager Ed Barnes, who served on a precursor task force. Barnes warned that if only the new I-5 bridge charges a toll, traffic — and congestion — will shift to the I-205 bridge. Barnes proposed putting tolls on both spans to head off that problem.

The next step in the process is the late February release of a Draft Environmental Impact Statement required by federal law. The statement will be about 3,000 pages long, and the public will have 60 days to comment on it by mail or email, or in person at hearings to be scheduled in Portland and Vancouver. Thus far, it looks like the project would have no major negative environmental impact, and may have a positive impact in some ways, by reducing emissions associated with the idling engines of vehicles stuck in traffic.

But that hasn’t satisfied some environmental activists and others, both on and off the task force, who have questioned the wisdom and expense of building a 12-lane bridge as the petroleum age enters its twilight.

“We should build it for the world we think we’re going to be living in,” testified Joe Cortright, a former economist for the State of Oregon.

“It sets a bad precedent that a project of this size ignores climate change.” said task force member Jill Fuglister, who is co-director the Coalition for a Livable Future.

Some argued that the additional lanes will only encourage people to drive, and thus will fill up after the bridge is open. On the other hand, state transportation planners point to the bridge’s light rail component and the likelihood of tolling as likely to reduce congestion.

Also controversial among commenters was the question of where to put the light rail tracks on the Vancouver side. Some favor Main Street as the location most likely to increase ridership, and predict it will stimulate transit-oriented development as it has in Portland. But some small business owners voiced fears about the disruption, and favor an alignment next to I-5.

About 120 people attended the Jan. 22 meeting; about half of those testifying were critical, but most attendees seemed to support the bridge.

No local elected leaders are standing in the way of the bridge, but seeing some citizen opposition, building trades union leaders have been encouraging members — particularly members who use the I-5 Interstate Bridge — to come to meetings and testify in favor of building a new one. A schedule of upcoming community meetings is available at the task force web site, www.columbia-rivercrossing.org.


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