The Big Divide: The Debate Gets Louder on Both Sides

By Eric Florip, April 23, 2013, The Columbian

Gov. Jay Inslee entered a meeting room at the Vancouver Community Library to a standing ovation. About two dozen local politicians and business leaders cheerfully shook hands with the new governor as he made his way to the head of the table. The applause continued until Inslee took his seat.

But Inslee’s first official visit to Vancouver last month was no celebration. He was stepping into a battlefield, and he knew it.

The day’s topic: the Columbia River Crossing. And the real celebration would come only if the bridge project that has divided this community is finally built.

Like many political events, this was a carefully orchestrated affair. Inslee had summoned a hand-picked group of supporters to make their case for the megaproject during a “business roundtable.” Inslee, a strong supporter of the CRC’s $3.4 billion plan to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, spoke like a man putting his clout into a fight he knows isn’t won. At one point, he urged people to use sheer political force as the yearslong debate around the project reaches a climax.

In essence, get louder. “Decibels count in this business,” the governor said.

Less than an hour later, Inslee repeated some of those arguments at a press conference on the library’s fifth floor. Floor-to-ceiling windows framed the Interstate 5 Bridge in the distance. Reflecting the volatility of the community’s bitter debate over the project, Inslee met with members of the public separately, his staff turning at least one media representative away.

On paper, the CRC reads like the kind of project that could receive widespread community support. It’s a large public works effort that promises new construction jobs, the expansion of a major commercial corridor, some relief from chronic congestion, better freight access, and a transit alternative for daily commuters.

Yet, for all the high-octane push behind it, the CRC exposed the county’s deep fault lines, triggering a push-back. A shift in the political landscape has given new clout to CRC opponents, drawing even more people to come off the sidelines in recent months on both sides of the issue. But while local opinion matters, decisions about money are being made elsewhere — in Washington, D.C., and in the state capitals of Olympia and Salem, Ore. The project appears headed for what many believe is a make-or-break moment in the Washington Legislature this spring.

The CRC’s own blunders have prolonged the debate and given opponents more firepower. The project initially ran into resistance over airspace at nearby Pearson Field, then ended up with a bridge too low for barges shipping large industrial products down the Columbia River. A local funding strategy for light-rail operation remains elusive after Clark County voters shot down Plan A. A costly early design called for 12 lanes, but was scaled back as Oregon and Washington backers cut costs and tried to reconcile their differences about how much more room to give to automobiles.

Supporters nevertheless continue to push forward, convinced that construction is now or never. And opponents haven’t given up, becoming louder than ever.

While the Columbia River Crossing is a regional and even national project with friends in high places, its impact will be felt most intensely in Clark County. It’s here that the issues of jobs, pocketbook costs, commute times, and economic growth are of greatest importance. The Columbian’s poll, published today, reveals a deeply divided public.

At the local level, several issues stand out as central in the public debate: how tolls will affect household budgets, commuting patterns, and businesses; whether the commuting benefits of light rail are worth the costs and perceived disadvantages; and whether the bridge will actually improve our economy. Each has generated its share of conflict, confusion, and doubt.

Answers aren’t as simple as either side’s arguments would suggest.

‘A 100-year asset’

Just before he held court with business leaders in the Vancouver library, Inslee met quietly with the leaders of three companies whose futures are at the heart of one of the CRC’s most embarrassing miscalculations: designing a bridge too low to accommodate the shipping needs of three large Clark County infrastructure manufacturers.

Thompson Metal Fab, Greenberry Industrial and Oregon Iron Works, which employed a combined 1,300 people in 2012, are based upstream from I-5 at the Columbia Business Center, a converted World War II-era shipyard with infrastructure and capacity unrivaled in the region. And all three say they’d be hurt, or even displaced, by the CRC as planned.

But the companies all have mixed feelings about the project. Even as they talk openly about the possibility of losing profits and jobs due to the CRC, all three continue to publicly support it. That’s because they also have something to gain from it.

Thompson and Oregon Iron Works are both in the bridge-building business, and representatives of both companies confirmed they could bid to help build the very project that threatens them now. “This project is just perfect for us to be able to look at that,” said Tom Hickman, vice president of sales and marketing for Oregon Iron Works. “We’d be very interested in this bridge going forward, because it would mean business to us.”

Thompson spokesman Tom Hunt said his company could also bid. But he added this caveat, clearly concerned about the CRC’s outcome:

“First and foremost, we have to know that we’re going to be in business,” Hunt said.

As for Greenberry, the company also operates a facility in Corvallis, Ore., and would benefit from sending more freight over a rebuilt I-5 corridor, said CEO Jason Pond. But it’s the products that go under the bridge that are the biggest assets, the “rainmakers,” Pond said. Losing that capacity would deliver a major blow, he added.

CRC planners initially designed a bridge with just 95 feet of clearance over the Columbia River, far less than those companies need to ship their largest products under it. (The current I-5 Bridge offers 178 feet of head room when lifted.) Scolded by the U.S. Coast Guard and others, CRC officials scrambled to come up with a 116-foot-high design late last year. Going any higher, planners believe, would slow traffic and drastically raise costs for the structure and its ramps. Now they’re hoping that plan passes muster with the Coast Guard. But it’s still not high enough for all existing vessels and their biggest loads.

The CRC has estimated the manufacturers could take a hit of as much as $116 million in lost profits as a result of the proposed bridge height. Company executives dismiss the number as too low. Whatever the outcome, mitigation means dollars — taxpayer dollars — to make good the lost profits, or to move them, if that pencils out. And it could mean a loss of jobs in a county fighting hard to attract new ones.

Greenberry and Thompson have indicated they would relocate if properly compensated. Oregon Iron Works, which owns its land and building outright, is less inclined to move.

The companies all know there’s a lot riding on the CRC. It could be a boon to the region, or a “devastating” long-term impact if the Columbia River’s marine capacity is choked at I-5, Pond said. For now, they’re betting on a good outcome.

“You ought to build it right the first time,” Pond said. “We’re not building a parking lot here. You’re talking about a 100-year asset.”

Traffic, tolls and light rail

When the first of the two interstate bridges opened in 1917, travel times between Portland and Vancouver improved immeasurably. No longer would travelers have to board a ferry. A Page 1 headline in The Columbian captured the unified, celebratory spirit of the day: “WITH IRON BANDS WE CLASP HANDS.”

The expected improvements for the proposed new bridge are far less dramatic.

The project would rebuild five interchanges in Washington and Oregon and extend light rail into Vancouver. Better traffic flows and more commutes by rail aim to ease congestion. But opponents point to predicted travel times on I-5 as evidence of a misguided and ineffective plan.

The CRC’s oft-cited analysis shows that southbound commuters would save just one minute between state Highway 500 and Portland’s Columbia Boulevard in the morning rush hour. That’s because of other Portland bottlenecks farther south — at Interstate 405, and at the Rose Quarter, where I-5 squeezes traffic into two lanes.

Less known is CRC’s analysis that the traffic improvement is better coming back into Vancouver during the evening. Commuters would save an estimated eight minutes — a 57 percent decrease — on the northbound approach to the bridge, among the worst congestion spots now.

But there’s a wild card: traffic diversion. That is, how many people will steer clear of the I-5 Bridge to dodge tolls, a key part of the CRC’s financing plan?

In The Columbian’s poll, published in today’s edition, three-quarters of respondents said they’d drive to Interstate 205 to avoid the peak-hour toll of about $4 each way. In his own analysis, Portland economist Joe Cortright, a CRC critic, estimates that as many as half of the 128,000 vehicles that cross the bridge today would avoid crossing I-5 to avoid tolls. Most would head to I-205 once I-5 tolling begins in 2016, Cortright believes. Even in 2030, traffic volumes on the I-5 Bridge could still be lower than they are today, Cortright estimates.

That may keep congestion down on I-5, but clog up other key routes instead. The end result will carry big implications for the CRC’s financial plan, which leans heavily on toll revenues.

In light rail, CRC opponents have found one of their key rallying cries against the project. They dismiss the transit mode as something Clark County doesn’t want or need — an expensive and inefficient alternative to buses or highway commuting.

Inslee and other supporters have said light rail is an essential part of the CRC, and necessary to qualify for an $850 million federal grant. That’s not entirely true — light rail is just one of several high-capacity transit modes that qualify for the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. Among the others is a “busway/high occupancy vehicle facility,” according to FTA.

But dropping light rail from the CRC this late in the game wouldn’t be as simple as lopping off part of the bridge design. Years of study and a federal Record of Decision are tied to that plan, which local leaders picked in 2008. Changing course now would likely mean more study, more money spent, and more delay. The CRC has already spent close to $170 million on planning.

The CRC estimates that light rail will attract some 18,700 daily riders by 2030. That’s slightly more than TriMet’s Yellow Line MAX train through North Portland averages some months now. It’s also a small percentage of all daily trips over the bridge. While light rail would serve those who cannot afford to drive or prefer transit, the vast majority of commuters opt for automobiles today, and would continue to do so even if light rail comes into Vancouver.

Locally, C-Tran is still looking for a way to finance annual light-rail operations after Clark County voters rejected a local sales tax increase last year. If the agency goes back to voters with another proposal this year, it may face another uphill battle. The Columbian’s poll found that roughly half of the county’s population opposes light rail. It’s reasonable to think that those rail opponents are unlikely to vote for any plan to pay for it.

Now or never?

The need for local light-rail money assumes, of course, that federal and state funding for the CRC falls into place. That’s far from a sure thing. The project’s fate may hinge on the Washington Legislature, after Oregon lawmakers agreed this year to borrow $450 million to help pay for the CRC. The money comes through only if Washington follows suit by Sept. 30, and if other conditions are met.

Supporters have said failure to act now means losing a chance at the $850 million from the feds to build the light rail component of the project. But a new Columbia River bridge has been delayed and redesigned before, and remained in the queue for that money.

Their urgency may have more to do with political realities than finances. CRC backers know the stars are aligned at the national and state levels, despite significant Clark County opposition. Inslee himself acknowledged he’s invested a lot of “personal equity” in the project.

In other words, they’re all in. If CRC funding flames out this year, supporters know they’ll have a hard time gaining steam again in 2014 or later.

“This is a one-time opportunity, and it expires this year,” said David Knowles, a Portland Business Alliance board member, voicing a sentiment often heard in the region’s political and business arenas.

“If you and the Legislature are not able to get this done, I don’t think we’re going to be able to create the political momentum on the Oregon side again,” Knowles told Inslee at last month’s roundtable. “This is the year to get this done.”

No middle ground

Some aren’t buying it. Clark County’s political and fiscal conservatives have found common ground with many Portland liberals along the Interstate 5 alignment who oppose the project. Critics on both sides of the river complain about the project’s costs. Clark County opponents tend to focus their more specific criticisms on light rail and tolling, while the Portland residents assert that adding capacity to the bridge will trigger more traffic from Clark County and create pressure to widen freeways through Portland neighborhoods.

The election of David Madore as a Clark County commissioner in November changed the conversation. Madore has called the CRC a “debt bomb” that would be a detriment to the community, and a drain on local jobs. But he said the region can, and should, come up with a plan that works for Clark County.

Madore advocates a third bridge across the Columbia River at 192nd Avenue, connecting state Highway 14 to Portland’s Marine Drive, Airport Way, Sandy Boulevard and Interstate 84. The idea hasn’t gained much traction, but Madore insists it’s a smarter, simpler alternative.

“Everything is a challenge,” he said. “But with leadership and the right team, you can make light work of it.”

Some say Madore’s election has actually helped wake up more CRC backers as the fight gained an even higher profile. New advocacy groups in favor of the project are emerging or re-emerging, determined to keep their voices out in the forefront.

With so little middle ground, discussion aimed at finding a “win-win” has given way to preparing for more battle.

At the end of his own attempt to rally the troops in Vancouver, Inslee ended with a familiar refrain: “Let’s go build a bridge,” he said.

That may or may not happen in the next decade. When the dust settles at the end of the CRC fight, it will take more than a bridge to heal Clark County’s wounds.

Aaron Corvin contributed to this story.

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