The Columbia River Crossing is one of the most — if not THE most — complicated bridge projects in the United States. Two factors lead to this distinction:
• The vast array of jurisdictions involved (federal, state and local governments, plus their respective transportation and transit agencies).
• The multiplicity of transportation modes that must be accommodated: a major interstate (and international) highway, plus commerce on the biggest river in the West, a busy rail line, two ports in different cities and two airports in different cities.
Toss in seven intricate freeway interchanges in a five-mile stretch, and CRC’s true purpose becomes more than just “a new bridge.”
This is a long journey with many steps forward and back. Last Thursday a major step forward was taken as Metro (Portland’s regional government) unanimously approved the CRC’s Final Environmental Impact Statement. This is significant because Metro is the last of six agencies whose approval is required for the FEIS to advance to the federal government. CRC officials hope federal approval can be obtained by December. Then, the CRC can seek funding for the project, estimated to cost $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion.
It’s good to see the completion of this approval process by six key agencies on both sides of the river. Earlier, the FEIS was OK’d by Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Commission, Tri-Met, C-Tran and transportation departments in Washington and Oregon. None of those green lights flashed quickly or easily. In Metro’s case, the CRC had to answer numerous concerns, most recently about the impact of the project on Hayden Island. Thursday’s approval came after assurances were given that a Community Enhancement Fund would be pursued to benefit residents and business on the island. Also, the best available technology will be used to reduce air pollution, and the CRC said it would urge Safeway (whose Hayden Island store will be demolished during the project) to relocate on the island, although that decision by the private-sector company cannot be guaranteed.
This one-step-forward journey also means a bitter interstate argument apparently is resolved. Many public officials on this side of the river have been more excited about a new bridge than about light rail. But many of their counterparts in Oregon have worried about a new bridge exacerbating sprawl. Instead, they have focused on the opportunity to extend Portland’s light rail line (one of the nation’s best, by many standards) into Vancouver. As Metro President Tom Hughes said last week, “What the Vancouver folks have said to me clearly … is no bridge, no light rail. What we’ve said to them is no light rail, no bridge. So we have both. That’s the only way we move forward on this.”
Of course, moving forward infuriates many CRC critics. And even after last week’s step forward, many huge obstacles remain, not the least of which are uncertainties about tolling and funding.
While those arguments continue (to the overall betterment of the project, we believe), residents on both sides of the river should take note of the jobs bill that President Obama was promoting last week. Whether you agree with or deplore that plan, it includes $140 billion to upgrade America’s roads, bridges and schools. If that infrastructure-improvement strategy — or any version of it — becomes reality, the CRC ought to rank high on the list.