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Bridge project needs leaders

The prospect of relieving severe and mounting congestion along Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., is increasingly being challenged by people who seem content to criticize potential solutions but offer few, if any, alternatives themselves. The challenges are led by Metro Councilor Robert Liberty and noted Portland economist Joe Cortright, who are creating doubts about a multiyear joint effort by state, regional and local agencies in Oregon and Washington to recommend improvements to the essential Columbia River crossing. Such attacks are not unexpected. Liberty is a well-known opponent of major highway transportation improvements and a passionate advocate of dense urban development. Cortright is a relative newcomer to the issue of transportation who suggests that the money spent on highways would be better used to fund education. He says the economy in the future will not be so freight-dependent. Both also pose other concerns, including the risk of increased Clark County sprawl and the fear that congestion will mount as Portland workers increasingly move to Vancouver in search of cheaper housing but not jobs. Crossing is a choke point on I-5 But such questions are only one side of a difficult matter that demands improvement — and, in Liberty’s case, demands leadership. As a Metro councilor, Liberty was elected by voters to be not an activist but a leader who moves the region forward. All too often, Liberty is content to be against something without offering specific alternatives or a willingness to bring diverse people to agreement. In the case of the Columbia River crossing, the need for leadership and problem-solving is great. The crossing has become a regional and I-5 choke point that increasingly threatens quality of life, adds to commute times and the risk of highway accidents, increases pollution caused by idling cars, and greatly expands the cost of doing business for the regional economy and national freight haulers that use I-5. Over the past several years, a 39-member task force studied the problem and narrowed down options for solving the mess. Over the next few months, the task force probably will advance a proposal to construct a wider new bridge, expand light rail to downtown Vancouver, add other local transit improvements and make numerous I-5 interchange improvements near the crossing. Such a plan probably will cost as much as $4.2 billion. While that number is daunting, it should not be a barrier to moving forward. Without improvements, the crossing’s problems will only worsen as the region, including Clark County, adds more than 1.5 million people and hundreds of thousands of new jobs over the next several decades. The solution also is of importance to the entire West Coast, and indeed the nation. Interstate 5 should not be allowed to fail because of one bridge connecting Oregon and Washington. Saying ‘no’ isn’t enough The alternative to Liberty and Cortright’s challenges is leadership. The importance of this matter requires that key public and private leaders become immediately involved in advocating for the crossing improvements and help educate the general public about the need for proposed solutions. This effort should be personally led by the governors of Oregon and Washington and should include the mayors of Portland, Vancouver and other regional cities. It should be joined by numerous local, regional and state business leaders. It is time that those committed to real leadership — and not just saying “no” — show that tough issues can be solved by government, business and citizens working together to build trust and confidence.