I-5 Bridge ‘tough topic’ in transportation plan

Structure not seismically stable; importance of planning emphasized

The Columbian - Local News
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The thorny subject of replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge, Southwest Washington’s most divisive piece of infrastructure, has not escaped the attention of the state’s long-term transportation planners.

The bridge is the first issue discussed in the “Tough Topics” section of the draft Washington Transportation Plan — 2040 and Beyond, a long-term transportation plan created by the Washington State Transportation Commission.

“Replacing this vital economic link with new infrastructure is daunting in terms of scope, coordination, environmental mitigation and cost, but those challenges pale next to the issues we face if this connection is severed,” the document states.

The planning document takes a high-level view of the entire state’s transportation future and, from a policy perspective, six statutorily-mandated transportation goals promoting economic vitality, mobility, safety, preservation, environmental health and stewardship. It is part of a regular update to the Commission’s 2035 plan, which was adopted in 2015.

The 91-page document covers a wide swath of topics before lastly addressing the state’s big transportation challenges.

The I-5 Bridge is one of four subjects included in the Tough Topics section, infrastructure problems that broach all six of the state’s transportation goals.

The report only names a couple of the crossing’s many problems that are well understood by anyone who lives in Southwest Washington and ever drives into Portland or navigates a barge on the Columbia River.

The document points to the “fierce gridlock” that’s come to define driving along the corridor and “creat(es) unacceptable impacts in communities on both sides of the Columbia.”

The I-5 Bridge is actually two bridges, one of which is 60 years old, the other being 101. Neither one is seismically stable, as their pilings rest on riverbed sediment, not bedrock.

“The river they cross is an essential part of the Snake-Columbia River waterway that supports our economy — collapse of either bridge will imperil critical navigation channels, with impacts felt throughout Eastern Washington,” the plan states.

Should one or both bridges fall down, it would disrupt I-5, the only interstate highway that traverses the West Coast from Canada to Mexico.

Drafters of the plan write that Interstate 205 “is incapable of replacing the interstate connectivity for freight and passenger transport.”

The report doesn’t acknowledge the failed Columbia River Crossing, the nearly 10-year $175-million joint megaproject between Oregon and Washington that was never built because the Washington Senate wouldn’t approve its end of the funding.

“Consequences of the no-action alternative are unacceptable. Despite the challenges, we must begin planning how to maintain this vital economic link over the Columbia River.”

The bridge isn’t the only mention of Southwest Washington issues. It says coordination between jurisdictions in the Vancouver metro area, among other urban areas, is important to managing growth and avoid spillover impacts.

The document also acknowledges housing availability and affordability as a major challenge everywhere in the state, but in a couple of regions in particular.

“It is a major factor behind congestion in the Puget Sound and Clark County regions, where workers have to travel ever further to find affordable housing.”

The document is still in draft form. The public is invited to comment.

The draft plan is available at WTP2040andBeyond.com or by calling (360) 705-7070.