A bill that would put greater support behind the replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee last week following legislative approval last month, with a few Southwest Washington lawmakers worried it shifts the focus away from building additional bridges over the Columbia River.
On April 24 Engrossed Substitute House Bill 1994 was signed by the governor following earlier approval by the Washington State Senate 40-5 April 10. The bill provides a framework to determine transportation projects of “statewide significance” while also assigning a project coordinator to assist in work on those projects.
“I-5 is the most important corridor on the west coast for the movement of people and freight, and our bridge serves as the primary north-south transportation route through Portland and Vancouver,” Rep. Sharon Wylie, a Vancouver Democrat and the bill’s prime sponsor said in a news release following the signing. “Replacing this bridge really is of statewide significance, as the economic well-being of both states largely depends on people and goods crossing the river, so ensuring this connection is safe and reliable is a priority.”
According to a bill summary, currently there is no way for the state Department of Transportation to designate statewide-significant projects, nor is there staff to work specifically on seeing those projects through. The bill provides certain criteria including a cost estimate of the transportation project to be at least $1 billion and would involve a bridge connecting two states, according to a Senate report on the bill.
Those criteria fit in with an I-5 bridge replacement which has received renewed interest since 2017. For this legislative session, ESHB 1994 has moved through both chambers, though not every lawmaker representing North County is in support.
During the House floor debate March 12 Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, expressed with reluctance he would be voting against the bill. He said he was in support for the need to address transportation projects of statewide significance, “but we shouldn’t be doing it at the expense of including the possibility of a third bridge.”
Orcutt said that although the bill didn’t mean a third bridge project was prohibited, it would push such a project farther down the line.
“Delaying a third bridge is going to delay real congestion relief,” Orcutt remarked.
Orcutt, Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis and Rep. Vicki Kraft R-Vancouver, voted against the bill during the House’s March 12 floor session. One local lawmaker voting for the bill was Brandon Vick, R-Felida, who, during the session, focused on what the bill would do, not what it would preclude.
“What we are really talking about here is a tool in the toolbox for the instance at which an I-5 bridge replacement could take place,” Vick said.
Vick referenced the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee, on which both he and Orcutt serve — Vick in the capacity of co-chair. He said that their work would still involve investigating the potential for additional bridges.
“Our community needs this bridge,” Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said at the floor debate. He said he was a strong advocate for additional bridges, though he noted that Oregon was not doing anything on its end, instead focused on a replacement.
Following the House’s 69-28 vote March 12, the Washington State Senate voted more strongly in support, 41-5. North County senators Ann Rivers, R-La Center, Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver and John Braun, R-Centralia all voted in favor April 10.
Following the Senate’s passage, Identity Clark County, a private nonprofit comprising local business leaders, lauded the legislative work.
“This bill will assure an expedited regulatory pathway when there is a defined project and funding plan to replace the antiquated and accident-prone I-5 bridge,” Identity Clark County President Ron Arp said in a release. He noted that both chambers had budgeted $8.5 million to open an I-5 bridge replacement office in the new fiscal year beginning in July.
An I-5 bridge replacement was a “top priority” for two local transportation and industry groups — the Clark County Transportation Alliance and the SW Freight and Commerce Task Force — Arp said in the release.