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EIS Working Group members met last week to talk about progress made on the bridge project since their November meeting and the project’s next steps. Pictured are, clockwise around the table starting at the laptop: Lorrie DeKay with the Gorge Commission, Brian Shortt with the Port of Hood River, Rich McBride with Hood River County, Rex Johnston with Klickitat County, Tim Counihan with the City of Hood River, Mat Dolata and Anne Pressentin with WSP Global. Also present were Kevin Greenwood and Michael McElwee with the Port of Hood River, Michael Williams with WASHDOT and Kristen Stallman with ODOT.

Results from the Port of Hood River’s recent survey on the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge Replacement Project show that, while the community is generally in support of the project, they’re concerned about toll rates and hold some distrust of the port.

EnviroIssues, a company contracted by WSP Global to help with National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) requirements, compiled and released preliminary results for the survey at the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) Working Group’s second meeting Thursday.

The survey, which was active Dec. 10, 2018 through Jan. 31, 2019, garnered approximately 669 completed surveys and 1,127 open-ended comments were submitted, according to EnviroIssue’s report.

Of the 549 respondents who provided demographic information, over 60 percent said they live in Washington and about 38 percent said they live in Oregon; and the majority of surveyors said they live in either Hood River or Klickitat counties. More than 60 percent said they were 35-64 years of age; just over half self-identified as female; and about 79 percent self-identified as White/Caucasian. Three percent identified as Hispanic/Latinx, 0.9 percent identified as Native American/American Indian, and 12 percent selected “prefer not to answer.”

Anne Pressentin, representing EnviroIssues, said that the project team is working to better reach the Spanish-speaking community and low income residents; Project Director Kevin Greenwood said that they’re working on formal government-to-government communication with the surrounding tribes.

The survey showed strong community support for replacing the bridge as soon as possible; but many comments expressed a lack of trust with the Port of Hood River as the bridge’s owner, citing perceived misuse of tolling funds for non-bridge projects. Many said they feel that they felt it was unfair that Washington residents, who they said pay the largest portion of tolls, don’t reap the benefits of toll-funded projects in Oregon; and some comments specifically expressed concern over tolls disproportionately impacting low-income residents.

Many respondents also expressed concern about increased tolls, and some commented that they would like to see tolls removed altogether. 

“Tolling will be part of the bridge, most likely,” said Angela Findley, project director with WSP, adding that the specific rate will depend on what financing options the project team is able to come up with now.

The port commission held a work session earlier in the week to learn more about tolling, traffic and revenue studies, as well as financing options for the rest of the project.

“This is a little different than the NEPA process,” Greenwood said, “So it’s really critical that the public … and any agencies that are going to be involved with this to learn how the toll rates are going to be set.”

While conceptual toll rates have to be included in the environmental study, Greenwood said that an “intense discussion” would need to be had on developing tolling policies before definitive rates could be decided — a discussion complicated by the fact that “the port doesn’t know if it’s going to be the owner of the new bridge or what the port’s role will be in that new bridge,” Greenwood said. He added that the priority right now is getting through the NEPA process, which is expected to be done in the last quarter of 2020.

“We are finally full-speed ahead on the environmental work,” Findley said, adding that the project team recently learned that they can submit a supplemental draft to the EIS that was completed back in 2003 rather than redoing the entire document, “So I think there will be pretty good time savings with the Final EIS,” she said.

Survey respondents generally supported the proposed bridge design and location, expressing strong support for a pedestrian/bike path and a fixed-span bridge instead of the current lift system. “The bicycle lane is really important; we’re glad that it’s included,” said Peter Cornelison on behalf of Friends of the Columbia Gorge at Thursday’s meeting. “Aesthetics are important to us,” he added, “because of the impact on the National Scenic Area.”

Working group members generally agreed with Cornelison and survey respondents that, as Pressentin put it, “it shouldn’t be a flashy bridge…it should be one that fits into its environment.”

“If the bridge is the center of our postcards, then we’ve missed the point,” said Commissioner Brian Shortt, “I want to take a picture from the bridge, not of the bridge.”

Klickitat County Commissioner Rex Johnston added, “I don’t care what it looks like; I just want something we can afford and is clearly functional, as soon as possible.”

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