Crossing conditions worry state transportation chief

Hammond reacts to letter from four metro-area officials

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

Published:

Updated: January 20, 2010, 8:02 AM

 

WEB EXTRA: WEIGH IN ON THE BRIDGE DEBATE in our poll.

WEB EXTRA: READ THE LETTER

Now what?

A day after four of the top elected officials in Portland and Vancouver laid out their conditional support for a new Columbia River Crossing, Washington’s secretary of transportation raised concern that at least some of those conditions may be unobtainable.

At the same time, agreement on general principles does not necessarily equate to perfect harmony when it comes time to pour concrete.

“That’s the tough part,” transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said, citing the lingering debate over bridge tolling as one example.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, Portland Mayor Sam Adams, Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart and Metro Council President David Bragdon began meeting more than a month ago to revive fraying support for the $4 billion crossing project.

The four men serve on the 10-member Project Sponsors Council, which also includes two citizen members, the executive director of TriMet and the heads of each state’s transportation departments. (One position on the council remains vacant, following Leavitt’s election defeat of former Mayor Royce Pollard, who served on the sponsors council.)

The letter, first reported by The Columbian on Tuesday, was addressed to Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

“The first really good news is that all four of them have expressed their interest in making sure this project happens,” Hammond said. “So that’s good.”

The letter is significant in light of rising concern over one of the largest public works projects in the region’s history, with a key meeting of the Project Sponsors Council scheduled for Friday in Vancouver. The project would replace two existing three-lane drawbridges over the Columbia; improve five miles of freeway interchanges; and extend Portland’s light-rail system into downtown Vancouver.

Bridge considerations

The four elected officials this week pledged to support the bridge, with the following broad caveats:

  • Performance targets should be used to guide the design of the bridge and manage traffic after construction.
  • A financing plan that protects “local taxpayers and road users.” The group specified that the “project’s costs are fair, provide high benefit-to-cost, and do not cannibalize funding for other priority projects in the coming decades.”
  • Protect the businesses and neighborhood livability of Hayden Island, which could be harmed by recent cost-saving refinements proposed by engineers with the bistate crossing’s office in Vancouver.
  • Independent evaluations, presumably funded by the states, to evaluate everything from growth assumptions about traffic and population, to the effect of the project on the rest of the Portland-Vancouver road system, to the effect of a bigger bridge in fueling sprawl.

The independent evaluation caught Hammond short.

“In the past, we’ve used independent expert review panels to come in and validate our work,” she said. “The way this looks, it almost looks like a re-do. I’m not sure the two governors are going to be interested in funding for a re-do. We’ve been working on this, all told, about 10 years.”

Hammond was troubled by another aspect of the letter.

State and federal officials insist that tolls are an inevitable part of funding the project. However, Leavitt campaigned on a commitment to fight tolling Clark County residents who commute to Oregon for work. And Adams insists that tolls must be used to keep rush-hour traffic from clogging the center of Portland.

Those goals might be mutually exclusive, Hammond said.

“The Portland-Metro side might be interested in having tolls so high that people would be encouraged not to drive their cars to Portland,” she said. “Whereas, on the Washington side, Commissioners Stuart and Mayor Leavitt are going to be pretty darn interested in keeping tolls as low as possible so as not to impact Washington commuters.”

Meanwhile, one member of the Vancouver City Council criticized Leavitt for acting on his own.

“We have a council/manager form of government,” Councilor Pat Campbell wrote in a e-mail to Leavitt on Tuesday. “Prior letters regarding our group consensus had council input and approval prior to being sent out. I wasn’t always in agreement, but that is how this needs to be done each and every time.”

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.