Local View: CRC needs a change of direction

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Our state Legislature is being asked to shell out $450 million toward a fancy new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River that would appease light-rail proponents but won't significantly increase traffic flow and would hamper use of the river itself as a freight corridor. To that, transportation-policy leaders in the state Senate have a counterproposal: Make some major changes, then we'll talk.

I'm one of those leaders, as vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. The changes are detailed in a recent letter from the committee co-chairman, a Majority Coalition Caucus colleague who also serves Clark County, to Gov. Jay Inslee; the Washington Department of Transportation, which co-owns the Columbia River Crossing project, answers to Inslee.

No one questions that a new bridge will be safer. However, it's not acceptable to drop $450 million of Washington taxpayers' money plus seven years of construction snarls on a new bridge that has no additional through lanes and won't save the typical morning commuter to Portland more than one minute of travel time, as the CRC office acknowledges.

Each weekday 60,000 Clark County commuters cross the I-5 Bridge. If they're going to pay $150 million in Oregon income tax annually plus tolls, they deserve a real solution: not just a new bridge, but a new transportation corridor that significantly cuts travel time for commuters and freight heading toward downtown Portland.

How about a 10-lane bridge with dedicated lanes for transit buses and carpoolers and additional I-5 lanes approaching from each side (especially north of Portland) to prevent chokepoints? None of that is in the CRC plan -- but it should be to justify the size of the investment we're being asked to make.

River commerce compromised

Unfortunately, the proposed design also misses the boat when it comes to clearance above the river. Because the Columbia is a vital freight corridor, the CRC office ought to anticipate how shipping needs could evolve. Instead, it wants to slash the clearance by more than one-third, to 116 feet from today's 178 feet, which would kill jobs by chasing away upriver employers such as Greenberry Industrial and Thompson Metal Fabricators and discouraging further industrial development east of I-5. Frankly, the people I represent don't much care whether the new bridge wins some architectural prize, if being stylish means fewer local job opportunities for future generations.

Then there's the light-rail question. Although light rail is a darling of urban planners, Clark County voters -- sensing a financial millstone -- have made it clear they don't want to pay for it. The CRC office claims federal funding for the new bridge hinges on including light rail; however, what proponents don't tell you is that a redesign with bus rapid-transit lanes instead would also keep the project eligible for that money.

From Washington's standpoint the CRC project should be about safety, increased freight mobility (by road and river) and convenient, affordable travel for Clark County residents to and from Portland. Unfortunately the focus seems to be on extending light rail, not on creating an efficient interstate-transportation corridor.

Along with the changes proposed to our governor, I've introduced several CRC-related bills in Olympia. Two received public hearings last week: Senate Bill 5088, to prohibit Clark County Transit from putting a light-rail tax proposal in front of some but not all voters in the C-Tran district; and Senate Bill 5502, to ensure bridge tolls won't hurt Washington residents financially more than Oregonians.

Add in what I gather are serious misgivings from Oregon lawmakers, and the CRC project could be in for quite a delay. So be it. As planned the project is simply too short-sighted to justify clinging to a timeline and charging ahead, despite the substantial amount of money and time sunk into it already. It's difficult for me to consider spending $450 million more of Washington taxpayers' money until the needs of those taxpayers -- and future tollpayers -- are put first.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, represents the 17th Legislative District; he is vice chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and deputy leader of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.