Opinion: Don’t skimp on safety, mobility in designing Interstate 5 bridge replacement

Opinion: Don’t skimp on safety, mobility in designing Interstate 5 bridge replacement

This was also published in The Oregonian on May 25, 2022.

Angela Wilhelms, Andrew Hoan and Jana Jarvis

Wilhelms is president and CEO of Oregon Business & Industry
Hoan is president and CEO of the
Portland Business Alliance
Jarvis is president of the
Oregon Trucking Associations

Opportunities to replace multibillion-dollar river crossings don’t come around often, so when they do, it pays not to underbuild. Regional leaders are considering a design for the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver that fails to maximize vehicle capacity, and, in doing so, will compromise safety while guaranteeing unnecessary congestion and environmental damage.

The design does include some crucial features, including light rail and safe routes for pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately, it skimps on the addition of auxiliary lanes that will allow cars and trucks to flow more easily and safely. A vocal few have strenuously opposed such lanes, and if they prevail, the bridge will prove to be a disappointment to the overwhelming majority of people and employers who have become familiar with the painful limitations of the current crossing.

These limitations are numerous and well-documented, beginning with the bridge’s age. The older, northbound span opened in 1917, when Woodrow Wilson was president. The “new” southbound span opened in 1960. The rickety pair are vulnerable to earthquakes, provide inadequate capacity for vehicles and even feature a lift span that stops traffic.

The impacts of these shortcomings have intensified as traffic has increased. In 2019, more than 143,000 vehicles crossed this bridge daily, according to the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. Vehicle traffic is so heavy and the bridge’s capacity so constrained that congestion persists for seven to 10 hours every weekday. To save time, many drivers detour to the Glenn Jackson Bridge six miles upstream, contributing unnecessary emissions to the volumes pumped out by the perpetual I-5 clog. Congestion is terrible for the environment.

It's bad for the economy, too. In 2017, more than $71 million in freight moved across the I-5 bridge every day. Slowing that movement will make it more difficult to deliver often-perishable goods on time and only exacerbate supply chain problems.

The bridge and associated infrastructure do far more than move people and freight, though. They also serve two major ports, shipping and barging lanes, and two transcontinental rail lines, all of which require goods to move efficiently within a small area. Continuing to gum up the works will do significant economic harm, as noted in a 2017 report. “In comparison with similarly sized U.S. metropolitan areas,” the Washington Department of Transportation explained, “the Portland region’s competitiveness is largely dependent on the region’s role as a gateway and distribution center for domestic inland and international markets.”

Increasing vehicle capacity is a no-brainer, as 44 organizations representing thousands of employers and hundreds of thousands of employees pointed out in a letter to bridge planners in May. Yet regional and state leaders are being influenced by the vocal few and may add only one set of auxiliary lanes in each direction rather than two.

Critics argue that adding capacity, even in the form of auxiliary lanes, will induce additional traffic. In fact, the lanes are desperately needed to enhance safety and to ease existing congestion. This stretch of highway features more than half a dozen interchanges that are closely spaced, leading drivers to make frantic and dangerous attempts to merge into heavy traffic. Auxiliary lanes provide greater distance for merging and, in some cases, allow vehicles to travel from one interchange to the next without having to merge at all. As a result, traffic moves more smoothly and efficiently, and accidents can be prevented.

Fortunately, the bridge’s design has not been finalized. Oregonians who want a bridge that minimizes congestion and environmental harm while maximizing safety and economic opportunity must continue to advocate for additional auxiliary lanes.