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Oregon, Washington Leaders Agree On Key I-5 Bridge Details

Political leaders across Oregon and Washington agreed Monday on key designs for a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia. They agreed the so-called ‘Columbia River Crossing’ ought to be 10 lanes wide — not 12. And they agreed on a scaled-down interchange at Hayden Island.

But as Kristian Foden-Vencil reports, it turned out to be a ‘two-steps-forward, one-step-backward’ kind of meeting.

Draft Concept of a replacement I-5 bridge with high capacity transit inside southbound bridge

Discussions about how to replace the old green bridge over the Columbia have rattled on for years. A recent independent review of the process called for more speed and political courage.

The ‘Project Sponsors Council’ pushed ahead yesterday, choosing 10 lanes and a key interchange.

Tim Leavitt is Vancouver’s Mayor.

Tim Leavitt: “This is a tremendously important step forward for this project. And it’s the culmination of that more collaborative effort that we engaged in several months back.”

Leavitt and the other members of the ‘Project Sponsors Council’, which includes representatives from Tri-Met, state tranportation officials and elected officials, are only advisors. Governors of Oregon and Washington have to sign-off on the final design.

But Portland Mayor Sam Adams, another member of the council says there’s a sense that after a lot of debate, things are beginning to move.

Sam Adams: “Today represents some significant progress in a more rational Columbia River Crossing.”

But in any $3 billion project there are likely to be problems. And the latest one to hit the Columbia River Crossing is the type of bridge that should be built.

Sam Adams: “The project team is proposing a bridge type that has never been built in the United States. A bridge type that in Japan went three times over budget and now has apparently cracks in it.”

That type of bridge, which uses an “open web” design,  was chosen because the bridge has size limitations — both from above and below. The Coast Guard needs to pass easily underneath. And above, the small planes that fly into Pearson Airfield don’t want to negotiate massive columns during their landings.

Designers therefore proposed a tunnel-like bridge — an option many cyclists and pedestrians didn’t like.  So the tunnel was opened to the air, and says Tom Warne of the Independent Review Panel, that led to a unique construction that uses the “open web” design.

Tom Warne: “That doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be built. We’re just saying it’s unique. That in order to advance an unique design like this, you’re going to have to do additional due diligence in terms of technical testing. The Federal Highway Administration will require full-scale testing of the connects in the beams and the decks and so forth. And so there’s quite a bit of work that yet needs to be done in terms of moving this particular design forward.”

Apart from the design, a new bridge should mean a 4.5 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions, because experts say traffic idling times should be cut. They also predict a drop in the accident rate from 400 per year to 200.

Katy Brooks of the Port of Vancouver also talks about how a new bridge would reduce commute times. She says drivers headed from 99th Street in Vancouver to Downtown Portland, would see commute times shrink, especially on the return trip.

Katy Brooks: “The real dramatic benefits that you see are northbound in the p.m., when everybody’s trying to get home. With a no-build scenario would take you 43 minutes. With both build scenarios, 10 and 12 lanes, that’s around 20 minutes, so it’s less than half the time.”

Faster commutes are nice, but questions remain about how to pay for the new bridge.

Members of the ‘Project Sponsors Council’ generally agree that some kind of toll is needed. That even includes Vancouver Mayor, Tim Leavitt, who campaigned against the idea.

Tim Leavitt: “I’m a little reluctant to say anything about tolls right now.”

General: “Ha ha ha.”

Henry Hewitt: “Oh go ahead.”

Tim Leavitt: “But, I’ll say I think it’s important that I think it’s important to pursue TMD alternatives and provide incentives. I mean if our mindset is we’re going to provide incentives to the citizens for using alternatives means rather than a mindset of penalizing folks who decide they still need to use their own vehicle. I think that’s an important message to deliver.”

Leavitt means that TMD’s or Traffic Managment Devices like tolls should be seen as way to encourage people to take mass transit — rather than to punish them for staying in their car. But the vote Monday did not include any decision on tolling.

The Project Sponsors’ recommendations will be passed on to the two governors.

If the project stays on track, construction could start in 2013.