CRC scales back connector lid over I-5 to bare bones

Vancouver will be responsible to find money to landscape it

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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When plans for a “community connector” were unveiled two years ago as part of the Columbia River Crossing project, a flashy design competition promised a parklike setting atop a concrete lid spanning Interstate 5 near downtown Vancouver.

Intended to connect Evergreen Boulevard to the Fort Vancouver Historic Site — which has been cut off from the rest of the city since I-5 went in more than 60 years ago — the winning vision called for native meadows, a reflective pond and basalt stone walking paths.

Those plans have changed. The CRC has now committed to installing just the concrete lid — at a cost of $30 million — but not put any of the landscaping on top. (The design competition didn’t include price limits or estimates for landscaping the two-block span).

“One of the problems with what was proposed in design competition is it was very elaborate,” CRC Director Nancy Boyd said this month. “We were concerned that it would be very expensive to build.”

Now, the city of Vancouver

will be responsible to find the money to landscape the structure. The crossing project and the nonprofit Fort Vancouver National Site have said they will help the city find federal grant money to do it.

The $3.5 billion CRC budget has money lined up for just the basic support structure for the connector, Boyd said.

The connector will be put in at the same time the interstate is widened at that point, by which time “we’ll have identified funding for that treatment on top,” Boyd said.

Even if grant money doesn’t come through, she said the project does have money budgeted to put grass atop the concrete lid, “so it would look like an extension of (the fort’s) parade field.”

But as questions are raised about how Oregon and Washington will come up with the $450 million each to finance the largest public works project in the Pacific Northwest, talk of trimming unnecessary costs and phasing construction has come up.

And at $30 million, critics have suggested getting rid of the connector entirely.

That, however, would clash with the city’s demands that the cap be included.

Including the community connector “has been the top priority for our mitigation” of the effects construction will have on downtown, City Manager Eric Holmes said this fall.

In 2009, planners said the connector had to be built as mitigation for cutting off about 3 acres of the fort grounds to make room for freeway widening. But Boyd said this month that only sound walls would be necessary as mitigation, not the highway cap. CRC staff did not return several requests asking for a figure of how much construction of sound walls would be.

Fort Vancouver National Site Executive Director Elson Strahan said the connector is also very important to his organization.

“The bottom line is if they have sufficient funds to do a certain amount of work, you could build a much smaller footprint and do more landscaping, but we’d rather have the footprint that was envisioned,” Strahan said. “It takes care of protecting the West Barracks and Post Hospital. The important thing for us is to get the connector built and then work with them to landscape it.”

Boyd said the project and the Washington State Department of Transportation are “very committed” to including the community connector in final designs.

“It’s going to connect two key parts of Vancouver in a way that it hasn’t been connected in a long time,” Boyd said. “It will be a great asset to the city of Vancouver, and it will become something of a gateway for Washington.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall