Is light rail on the $3.4 billion proposed Columbia River Crossing an unnecessary expense, something that can be easily replaced by express bus service? Not if you ask Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. In his view, removing light rail from the project ends the project. And not all Washington lawmakers are too happy about the sentiment.
Already a project marred slightly by design debacles, the proposed new 10-lane bridge to replace the current Interstate 5 bridge connecting Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, Wash., has government officials debating once again.
The project calls for an addition of 2.9 miles of light rail, adding to the 52 existing miles already on Oregon’s side of the river. With the new track over the bridge—okay, so the design actually has light rail running on the underside of the deck truss system—would come six stations in Washington and an additional station in Oregon, hosting about 18,700 expected trips by 2030. Without light rail, the project isn’t worth it, Kitzhaber said last week while Washington lawmakers were busy debating their state’s transportation budget.
Not everyone in Washington was in agreement with Kitzhaber on the light rail issue, especially as they tried to find ways to cut money from the bridge project. While the State Legislature did discuss a transportation deal over the weekend—the details still must be hammered out in an upcoming special session—that won’t stop the debate on the light rail issue.
Oregon has already committed to spending $450 million on the project, contingent of Washington agreeing to do the same this year. If all the state money falls into place by September, the project expects to land federal money and use tolls to make up the still significant difference.
One side of the debate says cutting light rail would reduce costs and ease the burden of toll-paying citizens. The other says cutting light rail also eliminates an economically viable way to cross the bridge and an obvious way to ease vehicle congestion.
A Kitzhaber spokesperson told The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver: “Governor Kitzhaber has been clear from the start: No light rail. No project. No kidding.”
If both sides can come together on the light rail issue—I would think that keeping light rail as part of the project, as planned, is an obvious choice at this point in the game, especially on a project of this magnitude—then we can still expect construction to start on the bridge sometime in 2014.
But, if light rail somehow gets axed, the Columbia River Crossing project will head in reverse, requiring a completely new design and a completely new political agreement. Neither of those will be easy.
Tim Newcomb is Engineering News-Record’s Pacific Northwest contributor. He has also written for TIME, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science and more. You can follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb or visit his website here.