House OKs plan for I-5 bridge

Jonathan J. Cooper / The Associated Press /

SALEM — Efforts to replace the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Portland with Vancouver, Wash., are headed toward speed bumps in the form of a familiar point of contention in the area — light rail.

A $3.4 billion plan to add lanes to the perpetually bottle- necked span over the Columbia River sailed through the Oregon House on Monday, and the proposal, which Gov. John Kitzhaber supports, could clear the state Senate next week.

It will then be Washington state’s turn to decide whether to fund its share of the project, and political leaders in the area are divided.

“It would be a disaster for our county,” said David Madore, a commissioner in Clark County, which includes Vancouver.

Madore’s opposition centers on a plan to expand light rail service with the bridge. Madore says he supports an expanded vehicle bridge, but considers light rail a waste of money that could be better spent on roads and highways. He fears the metro Portland transit agency, TriMet, is trying to expand its tax base into Washington state.

“Clark County is not to be a parking lot for Portland or a bedroom community for Portland,” he said. “Clark County is not Portland, and we’d like to be able to keep Clark County, Clark County.”

Vancouver voters have signaled opposition to the light rail expansion plan as well, rejecting a new sales tax to help pay for such a project in November.

Light rail supporters, however, say that component is necessary to get federal transit funds for the project. Three Democratic lawmakers from Vancouver wrote Washington Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month backing the construction project, including light rail.

Opposition to the project goes beyond light rail. Critics of government spending question the cost of the project and neighborhood groups worry about the impact of pollution and congestion at other chokepoints on Interstate 5.

Still, there are powerful supporters, including the governors of Oregon and Washington and the mayor of Vancouver. Business groups are eager to speed the flow of freight through the I-5 corridor. And unions are looking forward to thousands of construction jobs.

“We’ve all got a responsibility to help future generations, our children, their children, just as we are benefiting from the infrastructure investments” made by earlier generations, said Democratic Rep. Tobias Read of Beaverton, one of the project’s chief proponents. “We are coasting, in many ways, on the fumes of the investments that they made.”

The existing bridges are a chokepoint for traffic on I-5 and are vulnerable to damage in a major earthquake. Severe traffic snarls are common when a section is lifted to allow tall river traffic to pass.

The $3.4 billion project would include two new double-decker bridges with five travel lanes in each direction — up from three — and space for pedestrians, bicyclists and light-rail trains. Oregon and Washington are each responsible for $450 million, with the federal government and toll revenue paying the rest.

Oregon lawmakers voted to sell bonds to cover the state’s share of the project cost as long as certain conditions are met, including approval of funding from Washington state and the federal government and a U.S. Coast Guard permit.