Building Bridges: Connections Between Communities, Climate, and Equitable Transportation

The Columbia River between Washington and Oregon has been significant for transportation around the region for thousands of years, with people moving along and across the river to meet their needs, make a living, and connect across communities. The I-5 bridge between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon, is currently at the center of a regional conversation about transportation, connectedness, and community needs. 

Replacing the bridge has been discussed for decades. Most recently, a proposed project to replace the bridge died when the Washington State Legislature decided not to fund its state’s share of the project in 2013. 

In 2019, the project was resurrected and the planning stages of the project are now well underway. Oregon Environmental Council has a seat on the project’s Community Advisory Group and is tracking the project and its ramifications for the transportation system and communities across the state. This project is significant because of its enormous expense (three to five billion dollars), the implementation of tolling to pay for it, and its impact on transportation and land use patterns across the region.  In sum, the project will have a huge influence on our regional environment, economics, and quality of life.

Much has changed in the region since this project originally began more than a decade ago. For example:
  • The population of both states has grown and are projected to continue to grow.
  • The connection between transportation and social and economic equity have become more clear, and is an increasingly urgent issue in the region. 
  • Both Oregon and Washington have established ambitious goals to address climate change, which require reducing the total number of miles travelled by vehicles.
  • The financial gap between gas tax revenue and the funding required for planned projects is growing in both Oregon and Washington. 
  • The health and cultural impacts of climate change and air pollution are better understood now and are highly impactful and inequitably distributed.
  • Crashes involving people walking and biking have increased nationally and in the region, and disproportionately impact people of color. 
  • Oregon state, regional and local governments are engaging in processes to assess and address climate and equity through road pricing policy.

Currently, the project is set to follow the plans produced in the original Columbia River Crossing project. That project is likely to cost more than $4 billion and will not reduce climate pollution, increase safety, address health disparities, or provide better and more accessible transportation choices. This regionally significant crossing should meaningfully address climate and equity, be built on a solid fiscal plan, and shape the future we want. 

We need a project that better meets the needs of today, and for the future, not a project based on the outdated assumptions of 20 years ago. Here’s what we’re looking for in a new river crossing.
  • Reduce vehicle miles traveled. We need to move more people and goods around the region more efficiently every year. Not only do we not have enough money and space to keep widening our highways, we also need to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) to reduce climate pollution, air toxics, the loss of public and private space to roads and parking, and traffic injuries and deaths.These negative externalities of driving fall disproportionately on people who are poorer and people of color.  
  • Make it easier and safer to get around without driving. Include safe, convenient, well-connected facilities for transit, walking and biking, including for travel in the neighborhoods in the project area, as well as for the crossing itself. This is important not only for people who already use these modes, but because the future requires us to provide a practical alternative for people who would otherwise drive across the river. In order to reduce congestion and future-proof this bridge in a rapidly growing region, it is essential to move a lot more people and goods a lot more efficiently. 
  • Incorporate light rail. Light rail will accommodate the high ridership that will be necessary to reduce congestion and achieve the states’ climate goals. Frequent service connected to local transit connections and walking and biking infrastructure will provide greater mobility and access to people who are not able to drive a private vehicle. 
  • Right-size the project for managed demand. Design the project with the variable-rate tolling to manage demand, and reflect that in the design of the project to ensure that it’s right-sized. When a road is tolled, evidence shows that people are less likely to drive on it. They drive a different route, switch to a different mode, or just don’t take the trip at all. Overbuilding the project based on projections of unmanaged demand would be wasteful. 
  • Prioritize human safety. The term “travel safety” can be used to refer to minor incidents such as fender-benders, which cause property damage and increase congestion, or to major crashes that additionally cause serious injury and death to people. A clear distinction should be made between “safety of property” and “safety of people” and the latter should be a high priority.
  • Establish a community benefit agreement. A project this large should require meaningful commitments to the people involved in it, providing good jobs and other benefits to surrounding communities.
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