Could SR 167 sink in the Columbia River?

The News TribuneApril 18, 2013 

Out of the blue comes a distant political squabble that somehow threatens the most important transportation effort in the state – the Puget Sound Gateway Project.

Gov. Jay Inslee supports the Gateway, which would knit together state Route 167, Interstate 5 and state Route 509, eliminating bottlenecks and creating a bonanza of jobs in the process. The state House of Representatives is prepared to invest more than $1.25 billion in it.

But suddenly everything might hinge on a spat over light rail in Clark County.

Rail transit is part of the Columbia River Crossing, a planned overhaul of Interstate 5 where it jumps the river between Washington and Oregon on the ancient Interstate Bridge. Transit opponents in the Vancouver area have whipped up a backlash against the $3 billion-plus project.

They cite several complaints, including the height of the new bridge, but they wouldn’t be raising such a stink if the span weren’t going to extend Portland’s rail system into Vancouver.

In Olympia, the Republican-controlled Senate appears ready to reject any major highway improvements if the Crossing project is part of the package. The South Sound’s economic future has thus gotten tangled in the old, tired war between transit-haters and car-haters — a battle the Puget Sound region has largely put behind it.

We’ll declare ourselves agnostic on the question of whether a light rail between Portland and Vancouver is worth the $850 million the federal government is ready to spend on it. People closer to the dispute can figure out that one for themselves.

What seems clear even from this distance, though, is that even a bridge cars must share with rail is better than no new bridge at all.

The existing Interstate Bridge, which actually consists of two side-by-side spans, is past its expiration date. It lacks safety shoulders, squeezes traffic and rests on wooden pilings that could collapse in an earthquake. It’s one of the worst choke points in the interstate highway system.

The argument over its replacement is starting to look like Seattle’s interminable fight over the replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct, which was severely damaged by the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The threat of a collapse didn’t stop Seattle factions from feuding over conflicting replacement plans for the next 10 years.

The threat on the Columbia River is that the infighting in Clark County and the Legislature could cause $3 billion in funding for the Crossing to collapse.

The Oregon Legislature has approved its $450 million share, and the federal government is ready to invest up to $1.2 billion. The Crossing is dead, though, unless our Legislature ponies up Washington’s $450 million share.

Lawmakers in Olympia shouldn’t let the Puget Sound Gateway Project become hostage to lunacy in Vancouver. If people in Clark County are willing to kiss off a new bridge and that much federal and Oregon money, so be it. In this part of the state, we know a good thing when we see one — and we aren’t quarreling over our need for the Gateway.

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