Move the Columbia River Crossing forward

Last month, Senator Patty Murray convened local business and community leaders to convey two simple messages: First, it is time to move forward with the replacement of the Columbia River Crossing. Second, it is time for local leadership to emerge and carry the project to completion.

Senator Murray bluntly pointed out the obvious: there will be state, federal and local funding (including tolls) and yes Virginia, there will be light rail. Her address was a classic powder milk biscuit speech designed to give shy persons the strength to get up and do what needs to be done.

Will we respond?

Considering the visibility and size of an infrastructure project like a new I-5 bridge, it’s natural that the discussion about the Columbia River Crossing has been a long and spirited one. Experts, leaders and communities have come together to debate and work on this project because they recognize the important role that a new crossing will play in our region’s future.

The public’s input has been invaluable to this process. Project partners have worked to find consensus on both sides of the river. Transportation experts and engineers along with environmental, citizen and business groups have weighed in on what’s likely to be the most important infrastructure project in several generations. 

A healthy debate and input from many perspectives is a good thing. The project design has continually improved with each evaluation, including the recently released report from the Bridge Review Panel.  However, the time for debate is now over and its time to act. Now is the time to find agreement on the project details so that it can move forward.

As the population has grown and interstate trade increased, the current bridge has become the single largest bottleneck on the I-5 corridor, increasing pollution and crippling our transportation system for hours each day. In fact, by 2030, a million more people will live in the Portland-Vancouver region. Congestion is projected to last 15 hours a day and crash rates will double. Traffic on the bridge is expected to grow as much as 35 percent over the next 20 years.

Clearly, inaction is not an option.

This region is a major international import/export hub. Today, 48,000 jobs in manufacturing, construction, trade and transportation in the Vancouver metro region directly depend on the freight system. Without the ability to transport goods efficiently, local companies cannot move products quickly to market – an important consideration for our strong tech and fabrication sectors.

Beyond transportation and safety, the new crossing will deliver thousands of much-needed jobs to the region. A project of this magnitude will have a positive economic impact that extends far beyond construction job creation. It will inject funds in to everything from steel fabrication to food service, lumber industries and more, giving a much-needed boost to the local economy.

For four years I served on the Columbia River Crossing Panel and listened to many of the critics who claim support of the project with the exception of a “single flaw.” They point to tolls, light rail and/or the need for a third bridge. Some of these critics are sincere; some are disingenuous attempts to derail the debate. My answers are:

1)     Tolls are a necessary and fiscally responsible mechanism to fund this improvement

2)     Light rail is a key component to a metropolitan infrastructure

3)     Sure, we need a third bridge, but let’s plan it after we finish the job at hand.

I am in agreement that now is the time for business and community leadership to coalesce around the Columbia River Project and get it designed, get it funded and get it under construction. We cannot leave the project’s fate in the hands of those who have described themselves as the community’s “designated naysayers.” 

A 21st century economy requires a modern transportation system – one that enables safe, efficient interstate movement of goods and people. We can’t afford to delay on a solution to our region’s rapidly evolving transportation and infrastructure needs. It’s time to come together on this issue and make the choices needed to move forward.

Bart Phillips is the CEO of the Columbia River Economic Development Council. You can reach him at 360.567.1060.

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