Gov. Inslee promotes new I-5 Columbia River bridge

VANCOUVER, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee said Friday that Washington has a closing window of opportunity to replace the bridge carrying Interstate 5 over the Columbia River, warning that failure to act would "start that erosion process in our economic competitiveness."

Speaking with southwest Washington business and government leaders, the governor said the opportunity for more than $1 billion in federal funding won't be available for at least another decade. "This is the last-second shot for our team, and we've got to take it, because there's no other shot available to us," Inslee said.

The project has run into vociferous opposition from light-rail critics who oppose plans to use the bridge to link Vancouver with Portland's light-rail system. Inslee, a light-rail supporter, said removing the transit component isn't an option. "There really, at this moment in time, are only two decisions that are before the state, and that is to move forward with the current configuration or not move forward for the next 10 years," he said.

Vancouver voters in November rejected a sales tax hike to help pay for light-rail expansion.

Rail opponents say the decision is a signal that voters oppose light rail; Inslee said voters were merely opposing a sales tax increase but might support other ways of paying for light rail.

Oregon recently approved $450 million toward the project, and Washington has to kick in a similar amount to secure $1.2 billion in federal transit and highway funds. Another roughly $1 billion would come from the tolls.

Despite Inslee's enthusiastic support, the project is vocally opposed by more than just light-rail foes. Some say the cash-strapped state has higher priorities. Others say the height is too low and will hurt three businesses upstream that won't be able to get their goods underneath. The proposed span would not lift and would have 116 feet of clearance for river traffic — about 50 feet less than the maximum clearance of the existing bridge, which does lift.

Inslee said he hopes to find money to help those businesses mitigate the impacts.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said he's not buying the argument that the project is important for economic development. "I see it as restricting the future economic development beyond repair," he said, because it will limit any future manufacturing operations upstream from the new bridge. He's also worried about the impact of tolls on the local economy.

Neighborhood groups in Portland also have opposed it, saying they're concerned traffic jams will move from Vancouver to the next I-5 choke point at the Rose Quarter near downtown Portland.

The bridge is a chokepoint on Interstate 5, and businesses and commuters complain that they lose hours stuck in traffic. Inslee said replacing the project is crucial to Washington's economic competitiveness because businesses considering expanding in Washington want to know they can get supplies quickly and efficiently ship out their goods. He said the bridge is important to any person with a job in the state.

Between 2006 and 2008, on average nearly a third of Clark County workers — 62,000 — were employed outside Washington, according to data from the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

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