A group of downtown Vancouver business owners has launched its own opposition to the Columbia River Crossing in a letter that asks lawmakers from both sides of the waterway to deny project funding.
The undated letter, signed by representatives of more than 50 downtown businesses and accompanied by the website stopcrc.com, contains a list of 10 reasons signers want funding declined for the $3.5 billion project to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.
The first listed reason is that the project, which calls for rebuilding freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River and extending light rail to Clark College, "has a poor track record" of dragging out for years and going over budget.
The proposed project's drawn-out history makes some business owners feel vulnerable to customer accessibility issues that could hurt their sales during a lengthy construction project, said Tim Erickson, owner of Block & Olson Glass, which makes glass repairs at 205 E. 15th St.
So far, CRC project leaders have been unable to provide more than a vague timeline for the project's start because they must first get state and federal funding in place, starting with whatever each state contributes. Project leaders have said they also will rely on tolling as a third source of funding.
Other downtown merchants who signed the petition foresee their businesses losing parking to the project's proposed light-rail route, planned to circulate through the downtown core via Washington and Broadway streets and head east to Clark College on East 17th Street.
"My shop is within a half block of the light rail," Erickson said. "I'm extremely worried about business."
Although the letter and its signatures were sent to legislators in both states, it was timed primarily to coincide with a public hearing in Oregon, said Mark Dodd, a Vancouver resident and political activist who is against the CRC project. He said some members of the StopCRC group attended the hearing in Oregon. Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, recently informed a Clark County business delegation about the letter and is generally spreading the word about downtown business opponents of the CRC. Benton is vice chairman of the Senate transportation committee.
Other petitioners said they could be persuaded to support light rail, but only if it were developed on an alternative route near the present-day railroad bridge between Portland and Vancouver.
"A third bridge would save us a lot of money," said Chris Read, owner of an Uptown Village health food store, Arnada Naturals, which he opened in 2010.
The idea of a third bridge west of I-5 was considered and ruled out by transportation officials years ago, mainly for environmental reasons, but also because it would require a new traffic corridor through Vancouver in the form of an elevated freeway over downtown.
Read, who operates his business at East 17th Street and Broadway, said he would be pleased to see light rail running east and west along East 17th.
As for light rail's north-south tracks, he'd like to see that route situated several blocks west of what's being proposed.
"That would be better than having our area suffer from the loss of parking and foot traffic," he said.
The petition was circulated by Matt Brislawn, owner of Briz Loan & Guitar at 506 Washington St., a brick storefront Brislawn has owned for 17 years. Brislawn, who wrote the letter, spent one afternoon visiting downtown business owners and said he was surprised by their willingness to sign the letter to elected officials.
"Yet, our local representatives, our mayor, the VDA (Vancouver's Downtown Association), and the chamber (Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce) are willing to let our downtown small businesses become casualties to a devastating six-plus-year construction zone," Brislawn stated via a phone text message on Wednesday. "Why are they not protecting us?"
But at least one chamber official said her group sees no point in state lawmakers stalling for time on the project proposed to relieve a regional chokepoint for thousands of Interstate 5 commuters and freight traffic hauling some $40 billion in goods annually.
"The point of view the chamber has taken since 2008, long term, is if we stop now and kill the bridge, we've not really answered our problem or found the solution," said Kelly Parker, the chamber's executive director. "We've just kicked the can further down the road."