As it hits the make or break point on the Columbia River Crossing project, the Oregon Legislature must separate what it knows from what it can never know for certain regarding a new Interstate 5 bridge.

The Legislature is reaching crunch time on the bridge decision as it prepares for its February session. Leading up to the session, an interim legislative committee held a hearing this week on the crossing project. In addition, a series of reports and official statements over the past few weeks have served to clarify — and to confuse — key issues surrounding the now $2.7 billion proposal.

Lawmakers in Salem already approved a previous version of the crossing project, only to see that action nullified by the Washington Legislature, which failed to come up with its share of matching funds.

Officials now are considering an Oregon-only option that offers the last best hope for getting a new bridge over the Columbia River in the foreseeable future. While a decision to move forward won’t be comfortable for the politically cautious, lawmakers should first confirm the financial feasibility of the project and then — assuming they are secure with the numbers — press ahead.

The economic, environmental and transportation benefits that will come with a new bridge are too great to allow this opportunity to slip away. The news of the past few weeks has answered lingering questions about the bridge project while reviving some old concerns. A comprehensive study conducted for the Oregon Department of Transportation shows revenue from future tolling on the bridge will be sufficient to pay off bonds for the project.

However, the latest estimates also show that such tolling will push more drivers to the Interstate 205 bridge, potentially increasing daily trips over that span by nearly a third.

As these projections are being debated, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler continues to emphasize his requirement that the financing plan be solid, and completely within Oregon’s control, before he agrees to issue the bonds that would be repaid through tolls.

We hope Wheeler’s standards can be met with cooperation from Washington state. Meanwhile, it’s quite clear that a new bridge — no matter when it is built and with what design — will require tolls. So, if a bridge is ever to be constructed, more traffic will indeed shift to I-205, at least temporarily. That is no reason, however, to kill the bridge in its current form — unless you believe the status quo is acceptable.

All of these traffic projections are subject to change anyway. They’ve gone up and down during the dozen years that the crossing has been under serious discussion. Once the bridge is completed in a few years, drivers may move to the Glenn Jackson Bridge for a while, but they also may quickly decide that the time they save by returning to the I-5 bridge is worth the money. No one will really know until the thing is built.

What should not get lost in the conversation are the original reasons why the Interstate 5 crossing must be upgraded or replaced. The current crossing includes two spans, one of which was built in 1917 and is highly vulnerable to earthquakes. The existing bridge also is the last remaining spot on Interstate 5 where traffic must be stopped for bridge lifts to allow large ships to pass underneath.

The I-5 bridge is a choke point, a detriment to the free flow of goods and services.

With nearly $180 million already expended on engineering and planning studies — and with federal support already lined up — it would be heartbreakingly wasteful for Oregon now to walk away from this much-needed project. The I-5 bridge is not the solution to all traffic problems in the metro area, but it is a necessary component for this region’s transportation future. Like it or not, that future also is likely to include tolls — which are common in many other parts of the country — if anything substantial is to be done to improve roads at a time when the federal government is curtailing its transportation spending.

If Oregon legislators are comfortable that tolls can pay back the bonds for a new and vastly improved Columbia River Crossing, they should make this project their highest priority. Along the way, they’ll be giving a significant lift to the state’s economy.

Contract Publishing

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