Southwest Washington lawmakers ask for CRC redesign

They want an alternative plan for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Updated: November 8, 2012, 7:41 PM

 
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The plan to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River must be overhauled and should exclude light rail, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said Thursday. She was joined by nine other Republican officials from Southwest Washington, who are all calling for a redesign of the project.

Their call to action comes just two days after voters in the Clark County’s C-Tran district rejected a sales tax increase to pay for light rail operations, according to preliminary election results. The current $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing proposal includes an extension of Portland’s light rail system to Vancouver’s Clark College.

“There are a lot more powerful voices than Jaime Herrera Beutler that want this project to go through,” state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said Thursday.

Washington’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray chairs the subcommittee that oversees the federal transportation budget. Following the C-Tran vote, Murray said she remains “committed to working to bring the federal support needed to replace the CRC back to this community. Light rail is certainly the best hope to make that federal funding a reality.”

In their letter, the Republicans state: “Clark County citizens sent a message with their ballots on Proposition 1: it’s time to revise the plan to replace this bridge,” according to a statement released by the Republican officials. “The failure of Proposition 1 is only the latest in a number of major financing, design and process challenges to the CRC’s preferred alternative. While we believe the current I-5 bridge is inadequate and must be addressed, a new direction is needed.”

Herrera Beutler’s spokesman, Casey Bowman, said the congresswoman is taking the C-Tran vote as her marching orders, and she is looking for an alternative bridge design that excludes light rail. According to the latest election results, about 56 percent of voters rejected C-Tran’s Proposition 1, while about 43 percent voted in its favor.

Herrera Beutler “wants the CRC designers to produce an honest design that increases traffic capacity while relying on (Bus Rapid Transit) or another form of transit instead of light rail,” Bowman wrote in an email. “Assuming the costs and benefits of that design pencil out, then light rail should be off the table.”

Moving away from light rail would undo some or all of the $160 million in planning work to date. Many of the CRC’s key milestones — the locally preferred alternative, the Final Environmental Impact Statement, the federal Record of Decision among them — are all tied to the light rail model local leaders picked in 2008.

Longtime CRC proponent Moeller bristled at the idea of changing direction on the plan to replace the I-5 Bridge.

“We’re not going to scrap the project,” Moeller said. “It is a compromise project. It is a compromise bridge between Oregon and Washington and the federal government and a local share of tolls.”

Republican officials calling for a new direction for the CRC also said their constituents do not want to pay for bridge tolls, that the current bridge design is too short to gain crucial Coast Guard permits, and that Clark County residents have been “discouraged from participating” in the CRC’s current design.

“A redesign will take more time, but significant delays to the project already appear inevitable,” the statement continues. “We know (a bridge replacement) cannot succeed without our support, and that what we’re proposing will take a lot of hard work. … Once there is a project alternative that has the support of Clark County citizens, we will put all of our resources into making the bridge project a reality.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt said redesigning the CRC plan would be a waste of money and would delay a much-needed I-5 Bridge replacement. The region deserves 21st-century freeway interchanges and mass transit, he added.

“There has been over a decade of planning with literally thousands of public comments and thousands of hours of community volunteer and elected representative effort,” Leavitt wrote in an email. “Yet, these supposed conservative representatives are, in this letter, thumbing their nose at our public and their involvement, (and) rejecting the return of our federal income taxes right back into our community. … I’ve had enough of this nonsense.”

In addition to Herrera Beutler, officials issuing the statement on Thursday include: state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver; state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center; state Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver; state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas; Republican County Commissioner Tom Mielke; and Vancouver City Councilman Bill Turlay.

Republicans Brandon Vick, Julie Olson and David Madore also included their names in the statement. According to preliminary election results, Vick won his 18th District state House race on Tuesday, Madore won his county commissioner race, and Olson was leading in her 17th District House race by 207 votes.

Rivers said the light rail system is too expensive, that Vancouver’s population isn’t dense enough to warrant light rail, and that light rail is a bad choice because it’s stationary. “We can’t just pick up the rails and move them” if the demand for mass transit shifts to different areas, she said.

Rivers said that Murray’s stance on light rail is holding “us hostage to her whims. … Patty Murray’s comments reflect a complete lack of awareness of the people she represents down here in Southwest Washington.”