Light rail debate could put an end to the Columbia River bridge project

By Chris Spahr

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber has taken the position that the new Columbia River Crossing bridge project will die if Washington State attempts to remove light rail from the project. “Governor Kitzhaber has been clear from the start: No light rail. No project. No kidding,” said Tim Raphael, a spokesman for Kitzhaber.

Funding for the Columbia River bridge replacement

The replacement of this section of the I-5 crossing over the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington is needed to improve safety and reduce congestion, improve transit options and bicycle and pedestrian facilities, and increase freight mobility. In 2005, about 134,000 vehicles crossed the existing interstate bridge on an average weekday, which created four to six hours of congestion. Studies predict an additional 1 million people will move into the region by 2030, which could extend congestion up to 15 hours per day in a no-build scenario.  Since intercity buses are currently the only transit option over the bridge, transit mobility is severely limited by the current congestion.

Funding for the $3.4 billion project includes $450 million from each state, $850 million from the Federal Transit Administration, $400 million from the Federal Highway Administration, and another $900 million to $1.3 billion from tolls.

Light rail extension

The plan for the light rail is to extend the 52-mile regional light rail system an additional 2.9 miles across the Columbia River to Vancouver. The project would include four new stations and three new park and rides. It would give residents multimodal transportation options by providing transit connections to C-TRAN and TriMet bus routes and the region’s streetcar lines in an effort to reduce congestion.

However, the GOP-controlled majority in the Washington State Senate has said that it will reject any bridge proposal with light rail, claiming they don’t want to pay for new transit-operations taxes and that rail is a waste of potential road space. Another claim is that by constructing the light rail line beneath the vehicular traffic, the height of the proposed bridge is restricted, making it difficult for cargo to pass underneath.

Kitzhaber’s office asserts that any changes to the current design of the bridge would force the design team to backtrack, adding significantly more time to the project.

Chris Spahr is a Graduate Assistant with SSTI.