Sen. Murray: Let's get moving on infrastructure

Senator promotes development, both at Ridgefield and on a new CRC

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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RIDGEFIELD — U.S. Sen. Patty Murray signaled support Tuesday for the latest push to revive the Columbia River Crossing, saying the effort to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge should remain a priority.

The Washington Democrat has long been a supporter of the $3.4 billion CRC, which began shutting down July 1 after receiving no money from the Washington Legislature. But last week, a group of business leaders and other supporters called for a new approach that would essentially bypass Washington lawmakers and give Oregon the lead on a phased project. Those supporters include Columbian Publisher Scott Campbell. The Washington and Oregon governors have said they'll at least look at the idea.

After years of work and more than $170 million spent in planning, Murray said she welcomes the push that aims to salvage at least some of the CRC.

"The investment that we've made is extremely critical," Murray said. "It should not go to waste, and we ought to look at every possibility to try and make sure this bridge gets replaced."

The plan floated last week would keep the bridge component of the CRC the same, with light rail. It would rebuild freeway interchanges on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, plus the state Highway 14 interchange that connects directly to the bridge in Washington. But any additional freeway work in Washington would wait until lawmakers in Olympia decided to put up money of their own.

It's unclear whether a pared-down version of the CRC would stray too far from the plans already accepted by the federal government. Murray said she hadn't seen specifics on the latest proposal. Gov. Jay Inslee and his Oregon counterpart, John Kitzhaber, have directed their states to review it.

"It's in the governors' hands right now," Murray said.

Meanwhile, the CRC shutdown has dispersed most of the project's staff. Even if it were resuscitated, the project would face many of the same unanswered questions — among them local light-rail financing, permitting and tolling revenue. And talk of a revival incensed CRC opponents, as strongly against the project as ever.

Ridgefield interchange

Murray made her remarks after a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new interchange connecting state Highway 501 and Interstate 5 in Ridgefield. Murray joined state and local leaders in celebrating a project they hailed as a safety and economic boost to the area.

The $24 million project wrapped up last October, financed in large part by federal funding Murray helped secure. The senator credited Ridgefield and its partners for being ready when that money -- including federal stimulus dollars -- became available.

"Ridgefield was keeping its eye on the long-term vision and the long-term ball," she said.

The new interchange expanded a junction that was built in 1964, said Rick Sjolander, assistant regional administrator with the Washington State Department of Transportation. Before the upgrade, some large trucks had to exit the freeway at the interchange, then immediately get back on because they couldn't fit under the Highway 501 overpass, he said.

The project, which also added roundabouts on each side of I-5, opened the door for new growth in what's already the county's fastest-growing city, Sjolander said.

"There's a lot of land over here that could be developed, and the only way we're going to do that is with a better transportation system," Sjolander said.

Future work could extend the road east of the interchange and make new connections, said Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow. The mayor said he's heard from new employers looking at locating in the area.

"You have to build for the future," Onslow said, "and we did."

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