By Eric Florip, April 23, 2013, The Columbian
Clark County residents are deeply divided on the Columbia River Crossing, with neither supporters nor opponents claiming a clear majority of public opinion, according to a scientific poll commissioned by The Columbian earlier this month.
A total of 46 percent of respondents said they support the CRC, with 45 percent against after being told the project’s cost and that users would pay a toll. The remaining 9 percent were undecided.
And despite many CRC opponents’ hammering an anti-light-rail drumbeat, the poll showed there may actually be slim support for it: 49 percent of respondents said they’d favor light rail as part of a new Interstate 5 Bridge, compared to 43 percent opposed. Seven percent answered “don’t know.”
The poll’s margin of sampling error is plus-or-minus 5 percent.
The results come as Washington state lawmakers prepare to make a crucial funding decision on the CRC. Backers say it’s now or never, pushing harder than ever to make the CRC a reality. But in Clark County, the place most directly impacted by the project, the aggressive effort has failed to generate clear support, according to the poll.
“If I’m a decision maker, this is not something that, from a political standpoint, I’m ready to run up in front of,” said Bob Moore, president of Moore Information, which conducted the poll.
Further, among the Clark County residents most affected by chronic traffic congestion on Interstate 5 — those who cross the bridge at least several times a week — only about half say they support its proposed replacement.
“This is not an overwhelming margin for the CRC,” Moore said.
Columbia River Crossing officials were unwilling to comment on the poll results. The CRC, funded mainly by the Washington and Oregon transportation departments, has spent at least $170 million to date on planning, engineering, and public information, among other expenses.
Responding to a public opinion survey is “outside the project’s role,” said spokeswoman Mandy Putney.
Likewise, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, declined to comment by phone without seeing the full poll results in writing.
“It’s just too hard to have any useful comment without actually being able to read the questions and analyze the data,” Herrera Beutler’s spokesman, Casey Bowman, said by email. Herrera Beutler, a CRC critic, sits on the U.S. House Appropriations Committee and a transportation funding subcommittee.
The poll surveyed 400 adults in Clark County through landline and cellphone interviews between April 2-4. Respondents came from all ZIP codes of the county, each reflecting the same percentage of the poll’s sample size as their percentage of Clark County’s overall population, Moore said.
The $3.4 billion CRC would replace the I-5 Bridge, extend light rail into Vancouver and rebuild five miles of freeway interchanges in Washington and Oregon. Project leaders hope to begin construction by late 2014, but major hurdles remain.
Detailed results showed a community divided on multiple fronts — between Democrats and Republicans, between urban and rural residents, between I-5 Bridge users and nonusers. The numbers may not change many minds on the CRC, but local leaders on both sides of the debate found a few surprises.
After gauging people’s familiarity with the CRC, the poll started with a basic question: “Based on what you know or have heard, do you support or oppose the Columbia River Crossing?” That found less opposition — 45 percent in support, 37 percent against, 18 percent undecided — than another question with a brief description of the project. It wasn’t until participants heard more details, including the CRC’s multibillion-dollar price tag and mention of tolls, that some undecideds shifted toward the “oppose” category and produced the nearly even split.
After hearing some of the results by phone, state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said her first reaction was: “This isn’t the mandate we’ve been told we have for this project. … We’ve been told all along that everyone wants this, but clearly, not everyone does. That’s a pretty substantial number of people who are not in support.”
Rivers, a project opponent, noted that after survey respondents learned more about the CRC, opposition increased. She added: “The battle ground is always going to be in the undecideds.”
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said that in her 49th Legislative District, she believes there is majority support for the CRC. And Cleveland, herself a supporter, said she believes many opponents have been misinformed about the CRC.
“They’re confused about it,” Cleveland said. “People just don’t know what to believe anymore.”
The most stark division on the CRC appears to land along partisan lines. Among people who identified themselves as Democrats, 69 percent supported the project, according to the poll. Just 28 percent of Republicans said they support it. Independents didn’t show as large a gap, but still opposed the CRC at a 54 percent to 38 percent margin.
Such a partisan difference isn’t unusual on controversial issues, Moore said, “especially for things that cost money.” Independents tend to lean with conservatives on fiscal issues, and tilt more liberal on social issues, he said.
Among those who said they oppose the CRC, 27 percent pointed to the project’s cost as the major reason why — by far the top answer. Tolling emerged as the second most common response, and light rail, with just 12 percent, came in third. Several other answers garnered smaller percentages.
The poll also showed a noticeable urban-rural split on the CRC. Those farther from the project opposed it by a solid margin. Support was stronger in the city of Vancouver and surrounding urban areas, but still not a clear majority.
Those results are “not at all surprising,” said Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a major advocate for the megaproject.
“Anyone who has been involved in politics or ballot measures in this community for any amount of time would see these poll results as expected,” Leavitt said, referring in particular to the urban-rural split. “Those who are most informed, who are closest to the issue, who experience the Interstate 5 congestion are most understanding of the challenges and are expressing their support.”
Supporters and opponents of the CRC did find a few points of agreement. Both groups said they’d likely head to Interstate 205 to avoid paying a toll on I-5. Both said they don’t want I-205 to be tolled. And the vast majority of all respondents (87 percent) said they believe the county should vote on the CRC.
Told of that last result, Vancouver City Councilor Bill Turlay said he and other CRC opponents have been calling for a vote all along. Particularly on light rail, the public should have voted before the city endorsed it in 2008, he said.
“I think that’s absolutely essential, that people be able to vote on light rail,” said Turlay, who believes ridership projections are inflated. The CRC predicts a daily light-rail ridership of about 18,700 in 2030.
On tolling, the poll’s participants were asked what they would do if a one-way, peak-hour toll of $4.34 were put on a new I-5 bridge. That’s the highest-cost scenario laid out in a preliminary analysis by consultant CDM Smith, released by the CRC in February.
More than three-quarters of respondents said they’d use the nearby Glenn Jackson Bridge on I-205 instead, with the rest saying they’d drive the CRC or didn’t know. Sustained traffic diversion likely won’t be that high, but the outcome will carry big implications for one of the CRC’s key revenue sources.
Economic, safety benefits
Two of the main selling points used by CRC backers are economic benefits and safety improvements. Project officials say the CRC will result in 4,200 jobs and $231 million in additional wages by 2030. They estimate 500 fewer crashes per year on the bridge compared to doing nothing.
Many county residents told pollsters they aren’t convinced.
Less than half of respondents said they believe the CRC will benefit the county’s economy. A slight majority, 52 percent, said they believe a new bridge will make crossing the Columbia River safer.
“The economic benefit and the safety message are really not resonating,” Moore said.
Rise together, fall together
The Washington Legislature may decide the fate of the CRC this year as it decides whether to commit $450 million in funding that project leaders say is needed to stay on track. Sen. Curtis King, co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he doesn’t support the project as proposed. The Yakima Republican said there are serious questions still unanswered, yet lawmakers are being asked to make a decision without all the information.
The CRC “has made transportation a partisan issue, and that’s really kind of sad,” said Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, a strong supporter of the project. “We are looking at philosophical differences as important in our transportation infrastructure. I don’t understand that, but that’s what it’s become. Things that weren’t divisive before have become divisive.”
Leavitt said he wishes lawmakers outside of the 49th district would back the project.
“I wish there was leadership in other areas of our community,” Leavitt said. “Be a leader, and help your constituents understand the important relationship between the urban and the rural. We’re either going to all rise together, or we are going to fall together.”
Stevie Mathieu and Stephanie Rice contributed to this story.