Revelations in "The Big Divide" series (in April 14, 15 and 17 print editions of The Columbian) included a few surprises about public attitudes surrounding the Columbia River Crossing.The people who would use the new bridge more often (and thus would pay the most in tolls) support it the most. Low-income poll respondents who would see a higher percentage of disposable income go to light rail transit fares are more supportive of LRT than other income groups. And poll participants who live in unincorporated urban areas favor the CRC slightly more than folks in Vancouver proper, closer to the bridge.
But "The Big Divide" also confirmed many previous beliefs about this most contentious public issue, indeed the most expensive public works project in local history. We believe the poll validates the belief that the CRC — even with glaring imperfections — remains the best plan. It's also the only available compromise with stakeholders in Oregon. We also know that this project will not get any cheaper. Further delays will send costs soaring, especially as the country and our county move beyond the Great Recession and construction costs escalate.
"The Big Divide" provided a positive stimulant for Clark County, extending a community conversation that becomes more inclusive each day. Hardly anyone is hesitant to weigh in on the CRC, and that's a good thing. Public apathy would signal a lethargic community, uncaring about local quality of life. Here, folks care, and we're all willing to speak up.
Surprising to many, especially CRC critics who maintain a constant drumbeat of negativity, was the poll's revelation that more people support light rail (49 percent) than oppose it (43 percent). But this is no home run for the pro-light rail crowd, either. The only thing that's clear is the lack of a strong consensus either way. Therefore, any bold proclamations about how "the people" feel about light rail (good or bad) should be avoided. Let us hope that CRC advocates and opponents will refrain from trying to speak as the supposed voice of the people.
CRC officials might feel a sense of relief in learning that the community is near-equally divided (relatively speaking) on most aspects of the project. But that does not absolve them from serious blunders and daunting challenges that linger. For example:
Until the CRC and the Coast Guard agree on bridge clearance, there will be no meaningful progress.
Until negotiations are finalized on mitigating upstream manufacturers who would lose projects and suffer job losses, the status quo (unacceptable to all) will continue.
Until funding is secured from more sources — particularly Washington state — a new bridge will remain only the fodder for artists' renderings.
Now is the time to pick up the pace. Designers, negotiators and politicians must focus on accelerating this new bridge. The people of Clark County should recognize that countless hours of hard work and public involvement have brought us to this point, and we should resolve to move more harmoniously toward the all-too-clear solution.