By Eric Florip, August 8, 2013, The Columbian
A group of Columbia River Crossing supporters formally made their plea to revive the controversial Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project on Wednesday, sending a letter to the Washington and Oregon governors.
The letter, signed by a group of nearly 80 business leaders and other CRC supporters, asked the two governors to salvage at least part of the $3.4 billion plan, declared dead a month ago after Washington lawmakers failed to commit funding.
To bring it back to life, supporters want Oregon to take the lead on the project. They hope to use money already lined up to build a new Interstate 5 Bridge between Vancouver and Portland — with light rail — but without approval from the Washington Legislature.
“We feel strongly that while there is still a window of time to receive federal support, we cannot afford to walk away from thousands of hours of public involvement and community leadership on both sides of the river, reams of technical data, a completed federal environmental review process, and an investment of $175 million taxpayer dollars, without exhausting every possibility,” the letter reads.
In June, the Washington Legislature adjourned without committing any money to the CRC. The project began closing down almost immediately — a process that’s still ongoing.
Most of the staffers who had been working on the CRC have been relieved of their duties. Stop-work orders went to project partners and consultants. Washington State Department of Transportation employees once assigned to the CRC have completely moved out of the project’s downtown Vancouver office. A handful of Oregon Department of Transportation officials are still using the space. But visitors are now greeted with a locked door, a taped sign and an empty reception desk.
Until directed otherwise, the shutdown will continue. In Washington’s case, it’s not as simple as Gov. Jay Inslee ordering everyone back to work, said spokesman David Postman.
“We have no authority to spend money on it,” Postman said. “That has not changed.”
The proposal floated in Wednesday’s letter appears to work around the Washington Legislature, at least for now. Supporters called for a pared-down version of the CRC that would build a new Interstate 5 Bridge with light rail and new interchanges on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, but only the state Highway 14 interchange in Washington. The plan would rely on Oregon money already committed, federal funds and revenue from tolls on I-5. Any additional freeway work on the Washington side of the river would wait until lawmakers in Olympia put up money of their own.
Backers say the phased option could be done for about $2.75 billion.
Inslee said in a statement Wednesday that he was intrigued by the idea, and that it deserves serious consideration.
“I will ask our Department of Transportation and others to move quickly to vet this idea,” Inslee said in the written statement. “Specifically, I want a review of the potential impacts of this phased approach on tolling, light rail, permitting and mitigation. We will also continue discussions with the community, local officials and others who have an interest in this essential link to our region’s economy.”
Shifting more responsibility to Oregon could require lawmakers there to retool their financial commitment. When the Oregon Legislature authorized $450 million for the CRC in March, it did so only on the condition that Washington do the same by Sept. 30, among other stipulations. Oregon lawmakers may have to reconvene and somehow remove that trigger if the project hopes to move forward without a financial commitment from Washington this year.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said, “I am encouraged by the bistate support for this phased approach and plan to engage the Legislature and State Treasurer in the next steps to review the feasibility.”
The renewed push won’t sit well with CRC opponents in Clark County, many of whom are against light rail and tolls. And pursuing a scaled-back version of the CRC keeps much of the burden on toll-paying I-5 Bridge users — including tens of thousands of Clark County commuters — with seemingly less in return on the Washington side.
Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, was not impressed with the latest effort to salvage the beleaguered CRC.
“That the Oregon governor would attempt to proceed on this project without involving legislative, county, or city elected officials from Washington shows a monumental arrogance and also shows that he learned nothing from his defeat in June,” Rivers said in an email. “It is essential that the two states work together to come up with a project that truly works since this project is going nowhere without the Washington state Senate approval. This stunt moves his ball backward in that regard.”
Postman, Inslee’s spokesman, said the governor doesn’t want to miss out on federal funding for the project. But Postman said he doesn’t expect any plan that emerges to involve one state going it alone. The CRC has been a bi-state effort, he said, and will haveto remain so if it continues. It’s too soon to say whether a new bridge could actually be built without a financial commitment from the Washington Legislature, he said.
Meanwhile, a Sept. 30 expiration date on Oregon’s commitment looms. The U.S. Coast Guard is expected to decide on a crucial bridge permit by the same date, and approval is far from a sure thing. Federal officials have said the CRC was in good position for federal money, but won’t stay there forever.
In a statement provided to The Columbian this week, Federal Transit Administration head Peter Rogoff still signaled support for the beleaguered project.
“The Columbia River Crossing project would provide critical economic benefits to residents in both Washington state and Oregon,” Rogoff said. “The U.S. Department of Transportation is disappointed with the current situation, but is working with leadership in both states to determine what options remain viable.”