Backers of CRC push to revive project

They contend work can be done without Washington Legislature

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A group of Columbia River Crossing supporters believe they've hatched a plan that could revive the controversial Interstate 5 Bridge replacement — with light rail — and without the approval of the Washington Legislature.

In June, lawmakers in Olympia failed to commit their state's proposed $450 million share of the project's $3.4 billion plan. The CRC was declared dead as the Washington and Oregon governors almost immediately ordered the shut-down of the project.

The Oregon Legislature had committed $450 million of its own earlier this year -- contingent on Washington doing the same by Sept. 30.

Now supporters are calling for the governors to reverse course and use Oregon's money, combined with federal dollars tied to light rail, to salvage at least some of the beleaguered megaproject. Those involved in behind-the-scenes discussions say the result would build a new Interstate 5 bridge connected to an upgraded interchange at state Highway 14. But any other freeway improvements north of the Columbia River would wait until Washington puts up its own money. Planned interchanges in Oregon would move ahead.

Supporters in both states plan to send a letter as early as today urging the two governors to press forward any way they can on the CRC. Tim Schauer, president of Vancouver-based consultant MacKay & Sposito, said there's still an opportunity in front of the region.

"Let's not wave the white flag," said Schauer, among those who says he will sign the letter on his own behalf. "The clock's running down, but it's not out."

The last-ditch effort comes as officials continue to shut down the project. Most of the staffers who had been working on the CRC have been relieved of their duties. The remaining staff members have locked the front door to the project's downtown Vancouver offices, leaving only a taped sign in front of an empty reception desk.

Washington State Department of Transportation employees who had been assigned to the CRC moved out of the project office entirely last month. A handful of Oregon Department of Transportation workers are still using the space. Among the 96 government employees and consultants who once worked in the project office day to day, fewer than 20 are there now, said CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney. Stop-work orders went to project partners and consultants in July. Until the governors direct otherwise, that shut-down process will continue.

That's not the only hurdle supporters still face. Advancing without Washington's financial support would likely require Oregon lawmakers to reconvene before Sept. 30 and rewrite the funding bill they passed in March. And it's not clear that advancing a pared-down version of the CRC would fall within the plans and studies already tied to earlier designs. Local leaders approved the preferred alternative with light rail in 2008, and a final environmental impact statement in 2011.

In Washington, state funding for the CRC was tied to a broader transportation revenue package. Even in the aftermath of the plan's collapse, some of the CRC's most ardent supporters pressed on. Meanwhile, the project itself has left the door slightly ajar.

The CRC hasn't withdrawn permit applications to the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies. It hasn't formally withdrawn the project from the pipeline for federal money under the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program -- that's the grant tied to the light-rail component of the project.

Among the tasks ODOT has worked on during the shut-down are a traffic and revenue report, a geotechnical report and "support" work for the Coast Guard bridge permit application, ODOT spokesman Patrick Cooney said. The Coast Guard has said it will make its decision on the CRC permit by Sept. 30.

"We're just running the string out to the end," Cooney said.

A push to revive the CRC, even if it's a long shot, is sure to incense the project's many opponents in Clark County -- particularly if it works around the earlier defeat in the state Senate. But Schauer said he and others didn't consider the result a death sentence.

"They didn't kill a project," Schauer said. "They left an approved project unfunded."

State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, a strong supporter of the CRC, has said "we're too close to give up." She confirmed some details of the latest push Tuesday evening, and said she welcomed any effort to move forward.

"I believe there's a willingness on everyone's part to explore any option that might be viable," Cleveland said. "I think that's our responsibility."

It's unclear if the governors will be willing to about-face on a project already well on its way to closing up shop. Opponents will likely fight hard against any effort to revive the CRC, which spent more than $170 million in planning before the shut-down began.

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