A Bridge to Somewhere

Next year, the northbound span of the I-5 Columbia River bridge will celebrate its 100th anniversary. I has now been over three years since the Columbia River Crossing project was shut down. A variety of factors led to the project's demise, including partisan politics, project shortcomings, and economic timing. Many community leaders, some no longer with us, spent endless hours debating and discussing the project to come up with a locally preferred alternative and a final EIS that attempted to reflect the technical needs and community desires for a new bridge. What they left with was nearly $200 million spent, a great deal of political capital expended, and many broken relationships. Whether you liked the project or not, it was one of the greatest public process tragedies of our time. 

So much has been written and said about this project that it is hard to say anything without inadvertently plagiarizing someone. But after all the second guessing and blame placing, one thing still remains: the problem. Our organization focuses on growing and attracting traded sector industries as a way to maximize economic output and to create the highest possible standard of living for our community. We spend a great deal of time meeting with these companies to learn about both the challenges and opportunities facing their organizations. Consistently, we hear that regional mobility for freight, commerce, and people is a significant limiting factor to expansion or relocation to Clark County. Within that, the congestion and unpredictable nature of I-5 traffic is noted as the biggest issue by far. 

For Clark County economic development, the issue is not how to get more skilled workers living here an easier commute to Oregon. In fact, we prefer to keep as many as we can living AND working in Clark County. For us, this project is about improving essential freight and commerce for SW Washington companies, freeing up access to key business centers located in Clark County, and expanding the area from which our businesses can attract talent. 

From an economic output perspective, it is foolish to intentionally inhibit the movement of all traffic to attempt to incentivize working closer to home.  When we limit our regional mobility as a result of politics, we restrain the output and efficiency of the entire region. Moving goods, services, and people becomes more expensive, if not outright impossible, leading to higher prices or businesses being forced to leave the region altogether. We essentially make our "economic pie" smaller than it should be. While we may continue to differ on transportation and transit policies across the river, we must recognize that strong regional mobility is a paramount necessity of a healthy economy. Competition for business is fierce and we cannot afford to operate in silos when it comes to region-wide issues. 

A new formal process must begin this year and must be structured in a way that represents the diverse array of communities and perspectives with a stake in the outcome. It must begin with a shared agreement of the problem, and a commitment to fix it, even if that means the final product is not exactly perfect by all standards. In 2019, critical maintenance work will clearly highlight the economic impact of our interstate bridges. If we wait until then, or if something worse happens that triggers the discussion, we will have done our community a great disservice. It is likely that many of us will not be here to fully see or benefit from the final product of this effort, but we must move forward and establish a clear vision that will carry forward to future generations and elected bodies. The future business is risky, ugly, and underappreciated, but it is our business and the time is now.