In our view: OK From D.C.

Federal approval of Columbia River Crossing is a milestone in bridge planning

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After many years of scientific analysis, public participation, deliberation and planning, the Columbia River Crossing last week reached a milestone. Two key federal agencies on Wednesday approved plans for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge with the “locally preferred alternative,” including a new bridge with a light rail line from Portland to Clark College. Finally, Clark County residents have immutable answers to two crucial questions: We know what the structure will be, and we know that the federal government is on board.

Even with remaining uncertainties about funding sources and construction time line, there’s something to be said for reaching this milestone. For more than a decade — through countless public meetings, open houses, consultant analyses, partner-agency listening sessions and stakeholder consultations — we can check off the boxes about “What to build” and “Will the feds approve?” Officials for the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration signed a “record of decision,” which finalizes the environmental review process and allows the CRC to begin right-of-way acquisition and construction.

No one should be so naíve as to believe this federal stamp of approval will quell the arguments. History tells us to expect local wrangling to continue through ground-breaking, even beyond ribbon-cutting into perpetuity. But we now know that at least 70 project ideas were originally considered, then distilled into a dozen multi-modal alternatives. We also know that five possible plans were assessed leading up to the Environmental Impact Statement. Most importantly from the perspective of regional buy-in, the plan got green lights from the two states’ transportation departments and from six affected local agencies on both sides of the river.

After last week’s developments, The Columbian is unable to ascertain any lingering project opponent — individual or group — that can match the CRC’s record of public participation and scientific research.

Furthermore, here’s what we’ve heard from noteworthy public officials:

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood last week said the CRC 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 The old facility is outdated and it no longer meets the needs of the traveling public or commerce … one more instance of why the Obama Administration is focusing on key transportation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 … .”

Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez said, “We are making the long-sought-after transit link between Portland and Vancouver possible. This is the type of forward-leaning project that will greatly benefit the entire region well into the future.”

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said the CRC will “create jobs and lay down a strong foundation for long-term economic growth throughout the region and … make the entire region a more attractive place to live and do business.”

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire pointed to the “culmination of years of hard work, thousands of hours of public input and reams of detailed and extensive technical analysis … we are strengthening our state’s competitiveness … fixing a significant economic bottleneck and getting people back to work.”

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber described a new bridge that “is essential to keep Oregon’s exports moving from all across Oregon to the world’s markets.”

Obviously, many people feel a glow of excitement that’s rooted in more than just the holiday season. Of course, we’ll feel even more excited after Santa brings us about 3 billion bucks.