Letter to the editor: Bridge replacement over Columbia River must be overseen with competence


One of the most important issues facing the Pacific Northwest concerns the Interstate 5 bridges over the Columbia River at Vancouver.  After generations of faithful service, these two parallel spans are nearing the end of their usefulness and will need to be replaced.

With the possible exception of the development of a new commercial  airport in Western Washington, the bridge replacement effort will be the largest, the most disruptive, and, at an estimated $6 billion, the most expensive public works project foreseeable in this area. At the time of its construction, it may be the most notable project of its kind in the entire nation.

Recently, Third District Congresswoman Marie Gluesenkamp Perez was instrumental in securing $600 million in federal funds to initiate the project. Given that MGP is a member of the minority party in a chamber that is setting new records for dysfunction, this is a remarkable achievement. 

The older of the current spans, now devoted exclusively to northbound traffic, was completed in 1917. Until its near-twin was opened in 1959, it serviced traffic in both directions. It also accommodated an electric streetcar system until 1940.

According to the Bureau of the Census, the combined population of Washington and Oregon was about 2.1 million in 1920, 4.6 million in 1960, 9.3 million in 2000, and 11.9 million in 2020. Per capita vehicle ownership has flourished at an even greater magnitude.

At an average volume of more than 130,000 vehicles per day, the twin spans are strained far beyond their intended capacity. Hours-long traffic jams are common, particularly on the northbound lanes in the early evening.

Also, Douglas fir pilings were used extensively in this construction. It is feared that these ancient timbers would bend and break in a major earthquake.

We are all familiar with government projects that have encountered huge time delays and mammoth cost overruns. Often, initial estimates prove to be ludicrously optimistic.    

One such example is the infamous “Big Dig” tunnel and bridge megaproject that convulsed Boston in recent decades. Intended to renovate and expand Interstate 93 through the central city and to improve access to Logan Airport, the project broke ground in 1991 with completion set for 1998. The original cost estimate was $2.8 billion.

In reality, work did not finish until 2007 and the cost was $8.08 billion. There were numerous allegations of substandard work, incompetence and fraud, resulting in criminal filings and arrests. The project was necessary and must be judged as worthwhile, but its management was appalling.

A silver lining is the esthetic improvement to the city, which is vast. The new Leonard P. Zakim Bridge is a colossal upgrade over the old Charlestown High Bridge, which was probably the ugliest bridge ever built, a monstrosity in the heart of an otherwise attractive and historic city.

The lessons of this experience are unmistakable: Huge improvements to I-5, both practical and aesthetic, are possible on the Columbia and eminently desirable. But the project must be overseen with the highest competence and integrity from beginning to end.

Joseph Tipler