Leadership requires big thinking, listening, action to make it work

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden has at least two pieces of worthy advice for local officials grappling with the need to build a new Interstate 5 Bridge between Portland and Vancouver:

* Don't expect a decision of such magnitude to gain unanimous support from local constituents and elected leaders.

* And don't ask the Oregon congressional delegation to get in the middle of the local fight over alternatives for the Columbia River Crossing project.

Wyden, who met last week with some editors of Community Newspapers and the Portland Tribune, sees a funding window opening up for the crossing project to move forward. The federal government already has declared the Interstate 5 route to be a corridor of national significance. Congress is ready to start work on a massive transportation bill that will take legislative form early next year.

And with a new president coming into office next January, investing in the nation's deteriorating infrastructure might again become a federal priority.

These forces are aligning to give the Portland-Vancouver region a once-in-a-generation opportunity to replace the current I-5 crossing, which is a bottleneck for daily commuters and freight haulers.

The major element missing for the bridge project to proceed is a local consensus on what it should include, what it should cost and how the local share of that expense will be raised. Our view is that Portland-area elected leaders and residents eventually will coalesce around a preferred alternative that includes replacing the northbound and southbound spans, extending light rail from Portland to Vancouver and adding bike and pedestrian capacity to the bridge.

The price tag of more than $4 billion is admittedly large, but as Wyden says, 'You can't have a big-league quality of life with a little-league transportation system.'

Wyden's advice applies to other important transportation and other infrastructure investments.

When the region has planned big it has achieved: Westside Light Rail and Washington County Commuter Rail are two examples that come to mind. When it doesn't, it stumbles. Improvements to Highway 217 and linking Interstate 5 and Highway 99W without having to get caught in Tualatin and Sherwood local congestion are two missteps.

Big-league thinking doesn't always come naturally to Oregonians, who prefer smaller scale, incremental solutions that carry a more modest price tag.

But there really is no way to bootstrap your way to a new Interstate 5 bridge or other needed improvements.

In the case of the Columbia River crossing, you either build it - with all its necessary components - or you don't. This is one time when the region must think big, or it will lose the federal matching funds to some other area of the country.

Wyden is correct to frame this as a quality-of-life issue. For the region, a better quality of life means not having rush-hour style congestion on the I-5 bridge for 15 hours per day by 2030. It means having the ability to keep and create jobs by allowing better movement of freight in and out of the region.

It means finally establishing a light-rail link between Portland and Vancouver so that thousands of commuters can leave their cars behind. And it means not bringing an entire interstate highway to a halt every time the last drawbridge on I-5 must be raised to allow a tall ship to pass under.

It's natural - especially in Portland - that a project of this scale would generate diverse viewpoints and outright opposition. But as Wyden points out, it is the job of elected leaders to 'walk people through the choices,' listen to their concerns, arrive at consensus and take action.

We don't believe the problems caused by the current, antiquated I-5 crossing - or other broken transportation systems - can be solved through inaction or limited action. It is up to the region's leaders - starting with the Metro council - to build consensus around the best plans possible.

And while it will be impossible to have unanimous agreement, those key leaders also must present a clear message to the state and congressional leaders that the region is ready to move forward.

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