Bridge study's broad focus right course for Tri-Cities

Crossing a river is part of the routine in the Tri-Cities, with many of us traversing our bodies of water multiple times every day while hardly giving it a thought.

That is, unless traffic is stalled by a mid-span accident or road work, both of which seem more likely to occur on the Pioneer Memorial Bridge. (That's the blue bridge in local lingo).

Our beloved or bemoaned -- depending on your opinion -- clover leaf on the Kennewick side has been replaced with new and revised ramps and a super-sized traffic circle to make traffic flow more smoothly.

And we all have our own opinion of how that has worked out.

But revisions aside, congestion at the blue bridge has spurred local governments to requisition a study of potential sites for the next bridge to cross the Columbia River or the possible addition of lanes to an existing span.

The state Legislature appropriated $125,000 for the $250,000 study, and members of the Benton Franklin Council of Governments are making up the difference.

The effort turns an eye toward the future, but it also opens a can of worms.

The next bridge has always been something Tri-Citians have argued about. Two years ago, plans for a study collapsed amid various disagreements over what sites ought to be considered.

The new plan calls for studying 10 alternatives -- big enough to keep everyone happy, at least until it's time to narrow the list.

The three bridges crossing the Columbia River now might seem like plenty, but the cable bridge (formally known as the Ed Hendler Bridge) is woefully underused.

Traffic over the twin bridges on Interstate 182 (the Lee-Volpentest Bridges) seems to flow along just fine, though the occasional wind gust can liven up the river crossing.

For those of us who've lived here a long time, those bridges built in the mid-'80s still seem relatively new, but it's been 26 years since they opened.

The Tri-City population is expected to increase by 50,000 to 100,000 in the next two decades. That's certain to affect traffic flow.

Plans call for narrowing the options to five in the first cut, and then down to three by November. Officials already know reaching consensus on a preferred location for a new bridge will be a struggle, since any alternative will benefit some jurisdictions more than others.

With options as far-ranging as a bridge crossing from Stevens Drive in Richland to Columbia River and West Sagemoor Roads in Franklin County or Highway 397 in Finley over to Dodd Road in Walla Walla County, there is a lot to study. Options that don't include a new bridge are widening the blue bridge or improving the cable bridge's capacity.

But don't panic. Actual construction on the project is likely a good 20 years away. And our leaders have plenty of time to take a solid, comprehensive look at what is best for the long-term vision of the region.

Bridges have always been controversial here. We don't have enough paper to write about the battle over the former green bridge, but longtime residents know the story.

Its eventual demise involved a vote of the people and a court case that made it all the way the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. We don't need to go through that again.

For the next bridge, local leaders can minimize the potential for conflict by taking their time, conducting copious research and putting the Tri-Cities' needs over parochial interests.

They're off to a good start.