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Washington, Oregon consider tolls, transit, safety for new Columbia Bridge

The I-5 bridge connecting Washington and Oregon. (Thaddeus Roan, Flickr Creative Commons)

Plans to build a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River connecting Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon are back on the table, six years after Washington scrapped the idea.

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The bridge can’t handle the 135,000 vehicles a day that now use it. The original span was built in 1917. The second was added in 1958.

Both still have to open for vessels on the Columbia River. It no longer serves the needs of commuters or freight that need to get between Washington and Oregon.

“We believe this bridge is important to the economies, not just of two counties, but two states,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said. “This is an absolute arterial for the economies and lives of the entire states of Oregon and Washington.

For a little history lesson, a replacement bridge was proposed and granted federal funding in 2011, but the plans were scuttled by Washington lawmakers, who didn’t want to have light rail on the new span. There also was concern that putting trains on a bridge high enough to avoid ship traffic wasn’t safe.

After that, the $200 million invested just washed away, and so did the federal dollars that were promised.

Gov. Inslee has no idea how much it will cost to replace the bridge. It would have cost over $3 billion in 2011, but Inslee said there is no other option but to replace it.

“The first order of business is to have a bridge that is not going to fall down tomorrow,” he said.

The bridge is considered safe, but it is in need of a seismic upgrade.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown agreed that this bridge has served its purpose, but it’s time for it to go.

“We have to invest in the bedrock of our states’ economies, and that’s infrastructure,” she said.

The only condition set in the paperwork signed by both governors on Monday is that the new bridge must have high capacity transit. Gov. Inslee said that doesn’t mean light rail, but that would be his first option.

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“We’re not setting pre-conditions of type of high capacity systems,” he said. “We’re going to be driven by data, it will be a very thorough analysis of the alternatives, and we’ll have a vigorous discussion in our constituencies to see what their thoughts are.”

While most commuters in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon want congestion relief, the priorities for both governors put congestion relief last on their lists.

“The number one priority has to be seismic resilience for this particular project,” Gov. Brown said. “Secondly for me it would include high capacity public transit. Hopefully that would move us toward reducing congestion.”

There is expected to be a fight over what high capacity transit turns out to be. There are also potential plans to toll the new I-5 bridge, but Inslee said there has been no decision on that. The tolls would be more of the congestion pricing model based on the time of day, according to earlier drafts.

Inslee is hoping federal funding will go a long way to pay for this project.

A final report on what the bridge will look like is due in about 13 months.

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