Build that bridge, CRC backers say

50 respond to Republican calls for project redesign

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Supporters of the Columbia River Crossing on Friday hit back against Republican calls to overhaul the $3.5 billion project, saying there's too much invested in the process to turn back.

In a joint statement, about 50 local CRC backers directly responded to opponents' stance in the wake this week's election, and asked elected officials to "re-commit" to the controversial Interstate 5 Bridge replacement plan.

"We question the wisdom of those who would ignore a decade of research, discussion and work to build a new I-5 bridge and want to start over," the supporters' statement said. "In the last seven years over 1,000 public meetings, open houses and events were held on the CRC and 30,000 points of contact made with the public. To reject the project now is to waste millions of dollars, years of work and disregard the hard work of community groups in Washington and Oregon."

The statement was signed by a handful of elected officials including state Senator-elect Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver; Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver; state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver; and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt. Among dozens of private citizens who also signed was Scott Campbell, publisher of The Columbian.

On Thursday, a group of 10 current and newly elected Southwest Washington Republicans — including U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas — jointly called for a "new direction" on the CRC. Emboldened by this week's failure of a sales tax increase to help pay for light rail, the group said the project should overhaul its design and process.

"Clark County citizens sent a message with their ballots on (C-Tran's) Proposition 1: it's time to revise the plan to replace this bridge," the statement read. A spokesman for Herrera Beutler later said the congresswoman believes that should exclude light rail.

In addition to replacing the I-5 Bridge, current CRC plans would extend light rail to Clark College and rebuild the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River. Local leaders selected light rail as the preferred alternative in 2008. The project received a Record of Decision — a key milestone in the federal approval process — late last year.

But the failure of Proposition 1 did add to the financial uncertainty surrounding the CRC. Local funding for light-rail operations must be lined up before the project can secure the $850 million grant to build the system. And state lawmakers in Washington and Oregon haven't yet committed to their proposed share of the CRC's overall price tag.

With many Washington lawmakers already positioning themselves in the debate over the CRC, the issue could play a big role in the upcoming legislative session. Both Washington and Oregon will need to come up with state funding if the CRC hopes to keep up with its current schedule.

Project leaders hope to begin major construction in late 2014.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com.