If you build it…

Steve McDonagh

“If you build it, they will come” – the famous line from Field of Dreams (which technically uses the word “he” instead of “they,” but that’s beside the point) has been used countless times by realtors, developers and business people in all corners of our country. Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on your perspective, it doesn’t apply to Southwest Washington. “They” are coming already and they are going to continue to come. They come for cheaper housing, cheaper energy, better, cheaper and more accessible education and schools, and what we like to brag about most, a better quality of life. Now more than ever, they come for (or in some cases with) good paying jobs as well.

Oregon led the nation again in inbound moves, the third year in a row. Washington cracked the top 10 in the inbound move list for the first time, according to the annual United Van Lines study that tracks moves into and out of every state in the union. It is a trend that doesn’t appear as if it is going to change any time soon. So, we need to be ready, we need to plan and we need to learn from other areas that have gone through such heavy immigration periods.

I lived for over 20 years in San Francisco. I was there when the “tech boom” came, and was still there when the “tech bubble” burst. It is once again in a “boom” mode and young tech workers have been flooding into San Francisco and surrounding communities. But the rising costs of living and working in the Bay Area are driving a lot of tech companies and their workers north, to Oregon and Washington.

One issue the Bay Area has been focused on for many years is transportation, by understanding that it is the key to everything else. They have the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC) that is the planning, financing and coordinating agency for the nine counties in the Bay Area, which allows for integrated and comprehensive planning. Granted, like every government agency they are not perfect, but it has resulted in a transportation system that serves more than seven million people with a combination of bridges, toll roads, busses, light rail and commuter trains.

Here in Southwest Washington, we have a unique situation – we are located in a different state than the biggest city in our market. Nevertheless, we have to figure out a way to overcome the two-state issue. Not just for the Interstate Bridge, but in order to address issues of employee transportation, freight mobility and promoting and supporting economic vitality.

What we need is our own MTC for the five counties in Oregon and Clark, Cowlitz and Skamania in Washington; a commission with the power to develop a comprehensive plan for the entire region and the power to make decisions to implement such a plan that would be binding in both states. Of course this would take some bold leadership in the legislatures of both states, but it could be done. It needs to be done.

The I-5 Bridge is but one example of the need and the problem. The problem is coordinating the efforts and resources of two different states. The need cannot be disputed even by the most ardent opponent of prior Columbia River Crossing proposals. The northbound lanes of the I-5 Bridge are almost 100 years old (1917). The “modern” southbound lanes are 55 years old! If it was your house, you would have sold it or remodeled it years ago.

We need to be more proactive and the business community needs to be more vocal. Businesses and business owners are going to be greatly affected by the influx of new residents, and at the same time, businesses and business owners are going to be expected to pay the lion’s share of the expense of a new and/or improved transportation network. Until something like our own version of the MTC is a reality, Vancouver, Washougal, Battle Ground and Ridgefield – as well as Clark and Cowlitz counties – have a chance to use the experiences in the Bay Area to better assimilate this influx and retain our own Field of Dreams quality of life. We need to plan accordingly and cooperatively on our own transportation projects because “they” are coming, and we have to build it.