CRC panel's citizen member seeks answers

Washougal resident brings unique perspective, is not afraid to ask tough questions

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor



Other contenders

The following people were considered but not selected for the citizen position on the oversight committee:

Shane Bowman, Battle Ground’s deputy mayor

Tiffany Couch, Vancouver forensic accountant who has conducted research for CRC opponents

Michael Goodrich, Vancouver resident who works for Phillips & Company, a wealth strategies business in Portland

Darlene Johnson, co-owner of Woodland Truck Line

Source: Washington State Joint Transportation Committee

Rhonda Boni-Burden is an everyday person who's been given a unique opportunity: access to ask officials tough questions about the proposed Columbia River Crossing project.

Described as confident and no-nonsense, the Washougal resident is one of nine members of the state's recently created legislative oversight committee for the CRC. The group will oversee planning and financing of the project and provide advice on the project to the state's transportation department. Seven of the members are state lawmakers. One is a state transportation official. Boni-Burden is the only citizen member.

"My responsibility is to ask any question that anyone else would (want to) ask," said Boni-Burden, operations manager for Gulick Freight Service Logistics in Vancouver. "I don't think I'm afraid of asking tough questions. I don't think I have a pre-formed opinion in regards to the bridge."

In addition to her job at Gulick, Boni-Burden serves on the Vancouver Freight Alliance Committee and the Transportation Association of Portland. She's worked since 1999 for Gulick, a trucking logistics company that connects truck drivers to people with shipping needs. She travels over the Interstate 5 Columbia River bridge about five times a week on business.

The proposed CRC project would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail to Clark College, and rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River. Boni-Burden's position on the state's legislative oversight committee for the project is unpaid.

Boni-Burden's quest for information about the project led her to take a tour of Portland's light rail system and a stroll across the bridge. She plans to meet in a couple weeks with a representative from the state's department of transportation to discuss her concerns about the height of the bridge, which has been criticized as being too low to accommodate some river traffic.

"It's my job to learn as much as I can but not be a yes man either," said Boni-Burden, who's lived in the Vancouver-Portland area for most of her life.

So far, she's attended the oversight committee's first public hearing, which took place June 19. She's learned about the basics of bridge financing, about the test holes crews are drilling on both sides of the bridge, and about the alternative projects some groups are proposing.

Since receiving the appointment to the committee, Boni-Burden has been approached by opinionated bridge advocates and opponents hoping to sway her thoughts on the project. She said she doesn't want to form a strong opinion yet on the matter, but she did say that scrapping the CRC project for an alternative would set the community back and be a waste of the money that's already been invested.

"I've learned there's a lot of passion regarding the Columbia River Crossing -- regardless if it's for the bridge, against the bridge, for tolling, against tolling," she said. "I just think that our community has a lot of passion, and I hope that once everything's decided, that all that passion is tunneled for success. Not everybody's going to win."

On tolling to pay for the bridge, she said she'd like to make sure it wouldn't create too big a hurdle for a worker who needs to cross into Portland for a job that doesn't pay much.

State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, and state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, serve on the oversight committee and were active in nominating citizens for the spot on the committee. The ultimate decision to select Boni-Burden was made by leadership members of the transportation committees in the Senate and the House.

"My primary goal was to find somebody who used the bridge," Moeller said, adding that Boni-Burden's background was another factor in recommending her. "Part of the project has to do primarily with freight, and she has a great background in that."

Moeller said he also favored Boni-Burden because she was someone who "hadn't already made up her mind" on the project and who was "open to asking some tough questions. Honestly, I don't see things from every angle. I have my own biases that get in the way."

Moeller and Rivers said they think Boni-Burden has done an excellent job so far. Both were impressed with the questions she asked at the first meeting of the oversight committee last month. She especially grilled project planners about the height of the bridge.

"I liked her no-nonsense approach," Rivers said. "She was asking the hard questions that other folks might have been a little nervous to ask or uncomfortable asking."

During the interview process for selecting a citizen member, Moeller said Boni-Burden was asked why she would offer to get involved in a project that has become so contentious. Moeller likened it to "walking over and kicking a hornets' nest just because it's there."

Moeller said he was impressed by her response.

"Her answer was very straightforward," he said. "She thought she could contribute."

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or or or