Oregon CRC upgrades raising questions

Improvements to Steel Bridge, TriMet site in Gresham part of plans

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Acuity Group report on Ruby Junction/Steel Bridge

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Here's something you may not know about the Columbia River Crossing:

Plans for the $3.5 billion megaproject include upgrades to Portland's Steel Bridge, plus a significant expansion of a TriMet maintenance facility in Gresham. Both would be paid for by the $850 million federal grant that the CRC is banking on to build the light rail extension from Portland to Vancouver.

Surprised?

Those extras, totaling more than $50 million, aren't new additions. Both are included in the project's sprawling Final Environmental Impact Statement, widely released last year. They were also mentioned in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement published in 2008. But the two upgrades — benefiting two Oregon structures well outside the CRC project area — have flown largely under the radar as the $3.5 billion plan continues to lurch forward.

CRC plans tie the work to the light rail extension, saying the upgrades would be needed to handle extra train traffic generated by the project as part of the regional transportation system. But they've prompted at least some questions on the Washington side of the river. Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said it's worth asking how much the upgrades would benefit Clark County residents footing much of the bill for the overall project.

"If we're going to do this, we need to make sure we present the leanest, most functional project we can," Rivers said Wednesday. She is a member of Washington's legislative oversight committee on the CRC.

In Gresham, light rail funding would expand TriMet's Ruby Junction Maintenance Facility to accommodate "an expanded fleet of light rail vehicles," according to the FEIS. The extra capacity would also benefit the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project, currently under construction.

That expansion would be significant.

In 2011, CRC plans estimated the Gresham work could displace as many as eight businesses and nine neighboring residences. The same Ruby Junction expansion was detailed in plans for the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Project. CRC funds will contribute about $50 million to Ruby Junction, said project spokeswoman Anne Pressentin.

CRC plans also call for upgrades to the Steel Bridge in downtown Portland, again several miles outside the project area. Crews would grind transit rails within the track bed, install a vibration pad and make signal adjustments on nearby streets, according to the FEIS. That work would amount to just under $300,000, Pressentin said.

Those and other changes would allow light rail trains to cross the century-old span at 15 mph, instead of the 10 mph they travel at now. That would accommodate additional trips across the Steel Bridge generated by the CRC, according to project plans.

At last week's legislative oversight meeting, Rivers brought up the Steel Bridge and Ruby Junction work to clarify light rail plans not depicted on most project maps, she said. Others pressed project director Nancy Boyd on the cost, but she said she couldn't offer specifics off the top of her head at the time.

"As each meeting goes along, we get more and more information, and it gives us a lot to think about on the project," Rivers said.

States' share

CRC planners are hoping lawmakers in both states next year will commit funding to the project that would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail to Clark College and rebuild the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River. But the upfront price tag may not be as high as originally expected.

Boyd told the oversight committee last month that Washington lawmakers need to come up with $260 million to keep the project on track at first, then later find the rest of the $450 million that's been described in recent plans. Washington and Oregon are assumed to jointly pay about a third of the total project cost. Tolling revenue and federal dollars would cover the rest.

Washington committee members didn't appear thrilled about coming up with that kind of money for a project that still faces major financial and logistical questions. Without any major funding secured, project leaders hope to start construction in late 2014.

The CRC has spent close to $160 million in planning to date.


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