Before she entered politics, Anne McEnerny-Ogle was a junior high math teacher who commuted for a quarter-of-a-century between Clark County and Lake Oswego.
As Vancouver’s mayor, solving problems is an integral part of her life. So is the 100-year-old Interstate Bridge, the Interstate 5 drawbridge over the Columbia River that still stands unchanged despite calls for its replacement since the 1990s.
Now, five years after a few Washington state senators left Oregon at the altar and killed the decadelong plan to replace the bridge, she has one thing to say to Oregonians: We’re sorry.
McEnerny-Ogle thinks that apology may help solve a thorny political problem: How Washington can woo Oregon back and get the bridge replaced.
“Bless their hearts,” she said of her Oregon counterparts. “I absolutely understand we screwed them over big time with what happened.”
Though she played no role in ending the ill-fated Columbia River Crossing project – she, in fact, supported it – McEnerny-Ogle understands some Oregonians want an apology tour led by Washington leaders. Since taking office in January, McEnerny-Ogle has obliged, repeatedly apologizing for Washington’s role in killing the bi-state project after nearly $200 million in planning costs.
She doesn’t mind being that voice, because she said the region shares the same air, the same economy and the same fact that the bridge is a liability that grows with every traffic-snarled commute.
“We want to make sure that when the big earthquake comes, all the 65,000 people who work in your metro get home safe,” she said of Washington commuters. “Otherwise, you’re going to have to house them and feed them.”
Her efforts may be helping as discussions to revive the long-jinxed bridge replacement project take their first, wobbly steps.
Newcomers and old-timers alike can’t ignore the increasingly unavoidable traffic snarls.
Kris Strickler, Southwest Washington’s regional administrator for the state’s transportation department, said traffic counts show the bottleneck at the bridge continues to worsen.
The two miles of I-5 from State Route 500 to the bridge is the most congested highway stretch in Washington state.
Average speeds plunged to 9 miles per hour, down from just over 30 miles per hour in 2011.
“You only get so much water through a hose,” he said. “The I-5 corridor is at capacity.”
Drivers are seeking relief and adding miles to commutes by trekking to I-205’s Glenn Jackson Bridge. It’s no help. Morning travel times on I-205 have more than doubled from SR-500 to Airport Way.
Delays increased 83 percent from 2014 to 2016 on all of Vancouver’s key highways -- Interstates 5, 205 and State Route 14. And the amount of routine rush hour delays, where traffic was at 45 miles per hour or less for more than 40 percent of the time during peak travel periods, increased from three hours a day in 2014 to 11 in 2016.
According to a 2017 Washington traffic report, transit ridership on bus lines serving Portland also dropped 19 percent from 2014 to 2016. “This decrease may be due to dropping gas prices and better economic conditions,” The state said.
That trend could be making traffic worse for everyone.
“Riding transit helps alleviate traffic congestion by making the most efficient use of available highway capacity,” the report said.
More than a decade after a 39-member bi-state task force blessed its preferred option for the CRC – a multibillion-dollar bridge with light rail, bike lanes and redesigned interchanges on both sides of the river – Washington leaders increasingly sound like partners trying to win back a former lover.
Sen. Annette Cleveland, a Vancouver Democrat, has pushed to bring the bridge discussion back. Her campaign website blames “contentious politics” for ending the CRC. “I still believe the I-5 bridge replacement is the single most important need our community faces,” she said. “I will not give up until together we can find a path forward for replacement of the antiquated interstate.”
Cleveland sponsored a bill, which Gov. Jay Inslee signed in May 2017, to analyze what pieces of the CRC plans were salvageable. She and a bipartisan group of six other Clark County lawmakers have met for years to discuss how to revive the bridge discussion.
On Aug 6., the Vancouver City Council unanimously supported a resolution to replace the bridge with one including “high-capacity transit.”
McEnerny-Ogle has visited other Clark County communities, delivered the resolution to a group of Portland area mayors and persistently talked about the bridge at a metro-wide committee that studied tolling I-5 and I-205 sections.
The road back to the bargaining table wasn’t clear in 2014 when Oregon stopped trying to go it alone and the CRC itself formally ended.
So, what’s changed?
Ten thousand people have moved to Vancouver in the last five years. That doesn’t include the growing communities surrounding the state’s fourth-largest city.
Clark County’s population exploded by 11.6 percent since 2010, census records show. New residents brought new ideas, an ignorance of or indifference to past failures, and an increasing frustration with sitting in traffic -- with no alternative and no plan to do anything about it.
There are new mayors, new leaders at C-Tran and TriMet, and new representatives in these communities. It’s a perfect storm.
That doesn’t wash away the stain of the CRC.
“You listen to the old stories,” McEnerny-Ogle said, “You listen to the pain and agony.”
But then, she said, you ask, “Can we try again?”
COLUMBIA RIVER CROSSING EXPENDITURES
- ODOT: $105.7 million
- WSDOT: $94.1 million
- Total: $199.8 million
Federal Money Potentially Owed
- ODOT: $93.3 million
- WSDOT: $46.1 million
State Money Spent on CRC
- ODOT: $12.4 million
- WSDOT: $48 million
There’s a lot at stake.
The states face a September 2019 deadline with significant financial consequences. If they don’t show the federal government progress toward reviving bridge talks, a bill for $140 million of the CRC’s past planning costs comes due.
Both states, privately, say a revived bi-state discussion alone should keep federal watchdogs at bay.
But publicly, so far, Oregon’s response has been muted. Gov. Kate Brown issued a statement this week saying she was “encouraged our partners in Washington are ready to renew constructive conversations on this vital piece of transportation infrastructure.”
State transportation leaders, like Deputy Director Travis Brouwer, say they look forward to talking about “how to move forward with this critical project.”
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler would not comment for this story.
Inslee’s office said the project “remains a high priority for this administration and the state of Washington,” adding, “it’s good to see local legislators” come back to the table.
But the two governor’s staffs have yet to talk about what a new CRC process looks like.
It’s also unclear who will be representing Southwest Washington in the legislature or Congress after November. That goes for Oregon’s gubernatorial race, too, where Rep. Knute Buehler is hoping to unseat Brown.
“There will always be an election,” McEnerny-Ogle said, “We just need to move forward with this.”
More concrete steps are expected after the election.
But there’s also a sense some Oregon politicians need to be courted a bit by Washington to return to the negotiating table.
One Oregon transportation official said Washington would need to buy the bottle of wine and choose the date spots. Others likened the issue to the beginning of an awkward middle school dance.
McEnerny-Ogle said she’s undeterred by the CRC’s failure.
“I’m just the newbie that doesn’t know much,” she said. She doesn’t mind the dance analogy. She said it’s fair to say there is a bit of wait and see who makes the first move. “I think that’s what we’re doing.”
Some long-time stakeholders, like freight advocacy group leader Corky Collier, say it is past time to start dancing.
“The folks that blocked it are gone,” Collier said of then-Washington state senator Don Benton and a handful of others who blocked a funding plan in 2013.
Collier, executive director of the Columbia Corridor Association, said it’s frustrating that some Oregon elected officials are “kind of afraid to talk about it.”
In the meantime, truckers and other freight traffic start their travels earlier to avoid rush hour. Others put more trucks on the road to make sure goods get to their destination. It takes longer to make a delivery, and more trucks on the road means worse traffic for everyone.
“It’s time for us to be grownups and start thinking about what’s best for our communities,” he said.
THE ROAD BACK
The green, steel structure spanning the Columbia is the only I-5 drawbridge and one of only a handful on interstate systems nationwide. Since the late 1990s, it’s been recognized as a worrisome bottleneck by three U.S. presidents.
The bridge is actually two separate spans, and one is more than a century old. Neither is expected to withstand a major earthquake.
Oregon and Washington share maintenance costs, and the states deferred some big-ticket bridge projects in hopes a replacement would happen. It didn’t, and if a new bridge isn’t open by 2040, the states estimate they will spend $282 million more on upkeep.
Some projects are more pressing. In September 2020, a cracked trunnion, which allows the span to lift for river traffic, must be replaced.
The $13.2 million project will shut northbound lanes for two weeks and force all traffic onto the southbound lanes, a potentially monumental headache for tens of thousands of commuters. Other projects loom, like a $75 million paint job to prevent deterioration on the aging steel.
All of the original reasons the states embarked on the CRC still ring true today – worsening congestion, a lack of public transit options, impaired freight travel and the threat from a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake.
When the states do sit down at the bargaining table again, many roadblocks remain, but the biggest is how to pay.
Costs have invariably gone up from what was once a nearly $3 billion project a decade ago.
Last time, the states were to chip in $450 million apiece. Tolls were intended to cover another $900 million to $1.3 billion, but Oregon’s plan to toll its sections of the two federal highways has raised red flags among Democrats and Republicans across the river.
The states had all but secured $850 million in federal money for the light rail component of the project. But funding for public transit projects is no slam dunk in the Trump administration.
McEnerny-Ogle said that fact is all the more reason the states should think of other options, like building bus rapid transit into the bridge but making it “light rail ready” for a future administration.
“We’re going to have to have a different conversation about high-capacity transit funding,” she predicted.
That is unlikely to be a winning argument in Oregon. Light rail was a linchpin of the previous project and had broad support from the 39-member commission.
But for the first time in years, there’s a sheen of optimism from both sides of the river.
Collier said it’s important for Oregon, and Washington, to remember the previous project was “extremely close to the finish line.”
“It didn’t completely fail,” he said. “in the end it failed, yes, but there were 1,000 successes.”
Washington’s $350,000 CRC analysis last year showed the region would not have to start over if the political will emerged to reignite the bridge talk. Much of the permitting work and federal plans were, in fact, still useful or at the very least could be updated.
Strickler, who led that effort, said it’s conceivable the states could move forward with a slightly revised proposal without having to jump through legislative hoops or file a time-consuming new environmental impact statement.
In other words, there may be wiggle room to revisit the project and make substantive changes, but not start over and further push any solution another decade down the road.
“You’re still in a three- to five-year window before you could get to construction,” Strickler said.
But in the meantime, the states wait until the general election. Then, they’ll start talking about talking.