Bridging the gap

Summit seeks Oregon buy-in on I-5 bridge replacement

The Reflector - Local News
by ,

The Portland metro business community on both sides of the river is trying to send a message to Oregon lawmakers that a replacement of the Interstate 5 bridge is a big concern.

Bridging the gap
Columbia Corridor Association Executive Director Corky Collier, left, and Identity Clark County President Ron Arp

The Business Leaders Regional Transportation Summit was hosted in Portland Aug. 28.  It featured more than 150 officials in government, business and other organizations, including many representing Washington interests. The event was hosted at the Red Lion hotel on Hayden Island, overlooking the bridge span in question.

The summit was a joint effort by Identity Clark County, the Columbia Corridor Association and the Southwest Washington Freight and Commerce Task Force. Identity Clark County President Ron Arp said his organization’s “number one priority” was replacement of the I-5 bridge, with the summit providing a way to spearhead cooperation in meeting that end.

“We should be cooperating as a region anyway and on all topics, but on this one in particular we have to work together, two states, side by side, dealing with this challenge,” Arp said.

The data

The summit featured three presentations designed to paint a picture of the state of congestion on the I-5 corridor. 

Angela Salerno of transportation analytics company INRIX presented a data-driven look at the issue through a “congestion index” of Portland.

Of the 1,360 cities analyzed worldwide, Portland ranks 40th in terms of congestion; in the United States, the city ranked 12th. This was an increase from 2017 where the city was 47th and 13th, respectively.

Based on INRIX data, Salerno noted a few consistent bottlenecks with three of the top four on interstates — northbound I-5 and I-205 in the afternoon and southbound I-5 in the morning.

Salerno commented that the congestion increases were more than what would be expected given regular population growth, adding that “typically there has to be some sort of intervention at some point” in order to keep the city from not becoming inaccessible.

Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council Senior Transportation Planner Dale Robins said when he first arrived in the region 30 years ago 120,000 vehicles per day was seen as the maximum capacity of the I-5 bridge. Now the actual number is approaching 140,000.

“If INRIX was just doing it on the I-5 corridor, we would probably be in the top three in the nation” when it came to traffic congestion, Robins remarked, referring to Salerno’s information.

Looking at 2006 to 2018 southbound I-5 traffic, Robins pointed out a shift to earlier times by commuters to account for the general increase in traffic. He noted that currently, from Main Street Vancouver to Jantzen Beach, the average speed was 9 miles per hour during the morning commute. 

From 2006 to 2017 the average morning commute time of that same 3.6 mile stretch increased from about 14-and-a-half minutes to 23-and-a-half — about a 61 percent rise.

Data presented by Robins showed that currently there were fewer vehicles crossing the bridge during p.m. peak hours than was the case in 2006. He explained the phenomenon using the analogy of pouring sand in a funnel: pour it steadily and sand flows through freely, but increase the rate going into the funnel and it would back up in the funnel, slowing the whole system.

“That’s what is happening on the I-5 bridge in the p.m. peak,” Robins said. “We are putting so much more traffic in there we actually have a less efficient facility than we had 12 years ago.”

On the Washington side, Robins said more than $250 million has been invested into transportation infrastructure on the I-5 corridor over the past 25 years, including widening lanes and transit improvements. 

Providing the Oregon perspective was Sorin Garber, a transportation planning consultant not tied to a specific organization or agency. He said that more than 250,000 people have moved into Clackamas, Washington and Multnomah counties in Oregon over the last decade. With that, more cars were on the roadway. 

Apart from population growth, Garber also touched on the impacts a growing economy has had on the corridor, explaining that truck and barge traffic was expected to increase 62 percent in the next 20 years. With more barges more bridge lifts would be needed, further snarling the I-5 corridor flow.

Both Robins and Garber touched on one popular solution for congestion — building a new bridge. 

Garber said he has encountered about nine different “alignments” for where a new bridge would be — every alignment would result in only “0 to 8 percent” diversion off of I-5.

Referencing data gathered during the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, Robins said that 75 percent of trips on the bridge relied on the I-5 corridor and could not divert to other roads.

Following the presentations, a panel of four representing Washington and Oregon interests provided reactions and answered questions. Though much of the talk focused on the economic impacts, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency Emergency Management Division Director Scott Johnson focused on the affect the congestion has on public safety.

“Somebody mentioned earlier that time affects freight. Where I work it affects people’s lives,” Johnson said. He explained that all burn victims in Clark County cross the river along with most neonatal care and level-one trauma.

Johnson said that responding units to incidents on the bridge are marked out of service for twice as long as they would be to a similar incident outside of the bridge area. In a seismic event, the dated infrastructure of the bridge would only compound issues during an emergency situation.

Back to the table or footing the bill? 

Those gathered were provided a letter which they could sign. It was addressed to the heads of the Oregon legislature, Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and urged the Oregon lawmaking body to “pursue new conversations to replace the hyper-congested, obsolete and accident-prone I-5 bridge.”

The letter noted that the past attempt to a replacement in the CRC failed in the Washington legislature. Following legislation in 2017 Washington lawmakers have made a public renewal of interest, forming a bi-state legislative committee that currently only has members from north of the Columbia.

Arp mentioned that the legislation also put money to catalogue all of the old CRC work, saying that 80 percent of it was “fully reusable” in a new replacement project including approved permits and data gathered. 

Arp noted that if the two states do not come up with an I-5 replacement plan they may be on the hook for $140 million in federal funding used to facilitate the CRC project. The bill could come up as early as September of next year.

“We very well could be looking at about a $140 million payback to the federal government if we are not moving forward on some kind of a project,” Arp said.