In what leaders are calling a major milestone, the Federal Transit Administration gave the go-ahead to plans for the Columbia River Crossing.
The federal nod means CRC leaders can go after funding, begin acquiring rights of way and start construction, which is set for late 2013.
But the formal Record of Decision doesn’t come with a check to pay the expected $3.1 billion to $3.6 billion price tag. There is still lobbying of both Oregon and Washington legislatures and the federal government for funding, along with setting toll rates — far from a done deal.
The U.S. Department of Transportation issues numerous records of decision without comment. But the department took the unusual step of releasing a statement on the CRC decision, and called the project — which includes five miles of interchange improvements and replacing the bridges on Interstate 5, a bike and pedestrian deck and the extension of light rail from Portland into downtown Vancouver — a “long-term, comprehensive solution to address safety and congestion problems.”
“This project is a great example of why we need to strengthen our infrastructure. The old facility is outdated and it no longer meets the needs of the traveling public or commerce in the region,” federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said. “It is one more instance of why the Obama administration is focusing on key transportation investments to create jobs, strengthen the economy, and provide travelers with affordable, efficient options for reaching their destinations.”
The decision was also hailed by the governors on both sides of the Columbia River, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and local elected officials.
“We’ve been working really hard to get to this point, to get to a point where our federal partners … confirm and validate all the work we’ve done in the past six years,” CRC Director Nancy Boyd said.
Up next will be buying rights of way, particularly in the areas where the bridge will touch down, she said. Also staff members will begin having “very hands-on conversations with folks thinking about how we’re going to sequence construction,” as well as having “serious discussions on both sides of the river about the funding needs to get the project under construction.”
The decision also rings the starting bell for critics to file lawsuits challenging the environmental work used to justify the project.
Vancouver business owner and staunch anti-CRC advocate David Madore said Wednesday that he plans to file a suit. He said the CRC has made a mockery of the National Environmental Policy Act.
“Of course we will turn on the lights and expose the corruption, waste and betrayal of the public trust,” Madore wrote in an email. “Yes, we will fight this and work to restore sanity to our local government.”
In Portland, several groups, including the Coalition for a Livable Future and the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, are also likely to use litigation to fight the crossing. Potential pollution in north Portland from added lanes, or whether enough alternatives of the current plans were studied, are possible points critics could make.
Wednesday’s announcement didn’t come as a surprise to David Sweet, a board member on Portland’s Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods. But he’s not convinced that the federal endorsement makes the CRC any more likely to be built.
“It certainly doesn’t mean that there’s federal funding available, or state funding from either Oregon or Washington,” Sweet said.
His was among a group of Oregon neighborhood and business organizations that jointly filed a legal challenge to the CRC in August. The groups took issue with a Land Use Final Order that Metro used to give its green light to the project, arguing the law shouldn’t apply to something as big as the CRC.
Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals mostly shot down that argument in October. But the groups appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, and the case is still pending. The court heard oral arguments this week.
Members planned to discuss possible litigation at a meeting Wednesday night.
The coalition still holds major concerns about the CRC’s potential impact on health, the environment and traffic congestion — a sentiment shared by a lot of residents, said executive director Paige Coleman. Wednesday’s announcement doesn’t change that, Sweet said.
“We still believe that it’s a deeply flawed and inadequate document, and a deeply flawed project,” Sweet said, later adding: “I don’t think the project is likely at all to be built.”
CRC’s Boyd said she expects lawsuits with a project of this scale.
“This is a very major project, and big projects often end up being involved in these sorts of suits,” she said. “This is one of those points that we reach that they can come back and have opportunity for that.”
Impending court cases didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of local and national politicians who support the project, however.
In a joint statement with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Gov. Chris Gregoire stressed the economic benefits of the project.
“This is the culmination of years of hard work, thousands of hours of public input and reams of detailed and extensive technical analysis,” Gregoire said. “Businesses and jobs in Washington, Oregon and all along the West Coast depend on this economic corridor. By replacing the aging bridge over the Columbia River, we are strengthening our state’s competitiveness and laying a stronger foundation for a better economy. This decision moves us closer to fixing a significant economic bottleneck and getting people back to work.”
The statement from the federal government also included enthusiastic comments from the administrators of both the federal highway and transit administrations.
Locally, Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart also said he was pleased to hear of the federal support for the CRC, something he expected.
“Another key milestone has been reached, and it has taken a lot of work to get this far, but there are still many miles to walk before we start construction,” Stuart said. “There are serious questions to be asked of our citizens regarding light rail, and there are many unanswered questions regarding state and federal funding of the project.”
Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said finding Washington state’s share of the money to fund the CRC may come in the form of a “transportation package” put to voters for approval — similar to recent gas tax packages that have paid for other projects across the state.
In the midst of a special session defined by budget woes, Moeller said the Washington Legislature clearly doesn’t have the money to back the project now. The issue may come to lawmakers in earnest during the regular 2013 session, he said.
Moeller said he’d like to see the process move ahead. The need for new bridges, roads and other infrastructure is still pressing, he said.
“Those things don’t stop,” Moeller said. “They build our economy.”
The Portland Business Alliance also expressed its satisfaction with the federal decision, saying members support the increased freight mobility the construction will bring and that it was “tremendous news.”
Public discussions related to the bottlenecks at the I-5 Bridge across the Columbia River at Vancouver began in 1999 and have been nearly continuous since then. The CRC project formally entered the required decision-making process under the National Environmental Policy Act in 2005. One locally preferred alternative was selected in 2008 by four sponsor agencies. A final environmental impact statement on that locally preferred alternative was released in September 2011.