Convincing far-away federal government leaders to smile favorably on transportation projects in the Pacific Northwest has long been a challenge. But that doesn’t appear to be the case with ongoing plans to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said Tuesday: “We are big, big, huge supporters of the Columbia River Crossing. We think it is a classic example of what America has always been known for: doing big things.” And those weren’t the only CRC-related remarks the Cabinet member made to KGW-TV anchor Tracy Barry, who was in Washington, D.C., for the interview. LaHood also dispatched this prediction about the CRC: “We support it, the money will be there … .”
So, groundbreaking is set for dawn tomorrow, right? Well, not exactly.
As anyone who has followed this ultracomplex project knows, talking and doing are two different things. Congress has yet to act on President Barack Obama’s American Jobs Act, which LaHood was promoting as he made the glowing pronouncements about the Columbia River Crossing. If and when the lawmakers ever set aside their partisan hatchets long enough to agree on rebuilding America’s decrepit transportation infrastructure, the task of securing federal funds for about one-third of the $3.1 billion-plus project remains daunting. Even tougher might be the task of convincing cash-strapped legislatures in Washington and Oregon to cover another third of the total cost. And here on the home front, elected officials are far from total agreement on how to pay the other third of the new bridge’s cost, the so-called local commitment.
Still, a significant hurdle — one that traditionally rises inside the Beltway in Washington, D.C. — appears to have been lowered. Federal transportation officials are fully on board with (1) the need to replace the rickety relic that clogs the No. 1 transportation corridor in the West, and (2) the CRC’s qualifications for federal funding.
And that’s a very good thing for Clark County residents who deserve a better bridge.
The Columbian’s Andrea Damewood reported Thursday about a report from the Obama administration that describes projects that — someday — will draw favorable nods from the feds. Among items on a checklist were these:
Clearing bottlenecks. Check.
Fixing safety hazards. Got it.
Investing in public transit. Yep, right here.
Behold, then, the further alignment of stakeholders in support of the CRC. Previously — after massive research and extensive deliberation — six key agencies approved the “locally preferred alternative” of a new bridge with light rail. Those groups were Metro (Portland’s regional government), the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Commission, TriMet, C-Tran and state transportation departments in Washington and Oregon.
And now that federal officials are convinced, it’s time for local and regional officials to show a more united front. The most appropriate leader to coordinate that collaborative spirit is U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash. Other members of the Northwest Congressional delegation should also advocate for the CRC (notably Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell), but Herrera Beutler must see this project as one of the major issues that will define her work in Congress.
Significant political barriers remain to be cleared. By herself, Herrera Beutler cannot lower them. Ultimately, though, Congress will get around to funding transportation infrastructure projects. And at that time, our Congressional representative must take the local support of those six key agencies, bolster it with the federal support expressed by LaHood, and get something done.