CRC and Industry: Failure seen as opportunity lost for county

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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It's a sun-dappled Tuesday morning, and Thompson Metal Fab's cavernous facilities thrum with the sounds of overhead cranes and computer-programmed saws that cut through steel like butter.

It's music to the ears of John Rudi, president of the Vancouver-based company that rises where the Kaiser Shipyards shaped and launched Liberty vessels during World War II.

Until last weekend, Rudi had hoped that the Columbia River Crossing would keep the music playing with a project right in Clark County's backyard. The massive infrastructure project would have lasted longer than the company's typical 18-month-to-two-year contracts, providing the West Coast's largest metal fabrication plant a stable source of business for as many as five years.

But when the Washington Legislature adjourned June 29, the $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing was dead, without state funding to supplement dollars from Oregon and the federal government.

"This is not the outcome we wanted," Rudi said.

Others in industry and economic development share Rudi's sentiment. The Port of Vancouver had favored a new bridge to improve freight mobility along a riverfront filled with transportation-dependent companies. Local economic development officials fear that the prospect of continued chronic congestion at the Interstate 5 crossing will deter companies from moving or expanding in Clark County.

Still, some in heavy industry are delighted they won't have to deal with the project's seven-year construction period, viewed as a nightmare of road crews and delays. "It would have had a huge impact on my ability to perform what we do every day," said Chuck Bower, president of the downtown-based trucking company Vancouver Warehouse & Distribution Co. Inc.

The firm's trucks will continue to make more than 50 trips a day across the traffic-clogged I-5 Bridge, said Bower, who has long favored building a third bridge west of I-5 instead of replacing the existing crossing.

'We're disappointed'

Rudi's disappointment may come as a shock to some, given the fact that his company was cast by project critics as a high-profile victim of inept planning by CRC officials. The proposed new bridge height — 116 feet — was too low for Thompson to fit its largest products, such as oil rigs. CRC critics seized on the project's adverse impact on Thompson and two other manufacturers, while Rudi met quietly with CRC officials on a mitigation plan.

"It was like a second job for me," Rudi said of his CRC entanglements. There were "the reports, analyses," he said, "tours with legislators."

An estimated 35 to 50 percent of the company's revenues were at stake. About 300 people work for Thompson, a union shop that has an estimated payroll of at least $16.2 million. No self-contained unit, the company's size and stature give it gravity, the kind that attracts and gives shape to other local businesses and suppliers. Thompson estimates it indirectly supports another 215 jobs and $8.9 million in income annually.

So its livelihood, along with the lives of other businesses, was an open question.

The CRC inked deals with Greenberry Industrial and Oregon Iron Works, both of whom also said they'd be hurt by the proposed height of a new I-5 bridge. Thompson and the CRC remained locked in negotiations, with Thompson saying that relocating downstream of I-5 was its only option to stay viable. The lower bridge height would have forced the company to ship its large industrial equipment in smaller individual pieces, something that wouldn't have gone over well with customers itching to get things done. Rudi said he believed negotiations eventually would have reached an agreement that suited both parties.

Alas, the CRC died in Olympia, effectively ending any hope of reaching a win-win arrangement. It collapsed, as Rudi sees it, because of the short-sightedness of "a few individuals opposed to the bridge."

At least today, with the CRC adapting to its new place in the dustbin of Pacific Northwest history, Rudi remains a believer in resurrecting it in one form or another. The current bridge isn't getting any younger, he said. And the opportunity to remake and improve one of the most important corridors of commerce on the West Coast — and to generate thousands of construction jobs alone — isn't totally lost, he said.

For anyone who may misunderstand Thompson's position on the CRC, Rudi is eager to disabuse them of it. Yes, mitigation talks were tough. Yes, CRC officials could have engaged those who would be affected by the new bridge design earlier. But Rudi said he doesn't like the word "blunder" to describe how CRC officials designed what became a bridge height problem for his company. CRC officials were trying to draft a bi-state bridge project that would speak to the needs and concerns of multiple parties with varying interests, he said, which was by no means a small task.

His company, which also builds bridge components, wanted a piece of the new CRC work — as did other area manufacturers. Rudi said he wanted to see a region suffering from high unemployment benefit from the positive economic ripple effects the CRC would have generated. And the company supported light rail, too.

Rudi said the argument that Clark County should refuse to "plug into" a growing light-rail system in a larger metro area and instead create its own "sub-system" was "foolish."

How is it possible, he asked, for the region to pass on an opportunity, one that doesn't come up often, to build one of the biggest transportation and economic development projects on the West Coast?

Although he wants to see the CRC put back on track in some fashion, Rudi also is moving on. He's got a business to run and projects to manage. Pieces of one of those projects are stored inside one part of Thompson's 400,000 square feet of space. They include support structure and rails to serve a six-mile expansion of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.

It's the kind of work Thompson will aggressively pursue in the future.

But doesn't Rudi see a silver lining in the fact that the existing span connecting Vancouver and Portland has plenty of clearance for his company's products?

No, he said. "We're disappointed, no question."

CREDC concerns

The Columbia River Crossing is included among numerous other infrastructure and economic development initiatives in a growth plan advanced by the Vancouver-based Columbia River Economic Development Council. The nonprofit jobs promoter and business recruiter will maintain a focus on freight mobility and the need for transportation improvements even without the CRC, said Lisa Nisenfeld, president of the council.

Nisenfeld said it's too soon to say what the next steps are after the demise of the planned Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project.

But she believes the failure of the CRC will have an impact on the region's efforts to recruit employers to Clark County.

"It's too soon to tell what kind of effect that will have," she said. Nonetheless, prospective employers inquired about the CRC on a fairly regular basis, Nisenfeld said. "The sentence usually goes, 'They are going to build the bridge aren't they?'"

The CRC collapsed when the state Senate, run by a new conservative majority, refused to take up a transportation gas-tax proposal that would have paid the state's $450 million share. She called the Senate action "very disappointing. These are not partisan issues. The economy, keeping our freight moving and our people moving, those are everyday issues for people."

Nevertheless, Nisenfeld said, Southwest Washington has a history of pulling together and getting things done. "We need to reclaim that approach," she said. "We need people to talk about what they do want, not what they don't want."

Port issues

The ports of Vancouver and Portland were chief backers of the Columbia River Crossing, describing it in a report they jointly issued in October 2012 as a "freight corridor of national significance, carrying the bulk of our region's trucks across the Columbia."

The ports also spelled out the consequences of not acting to relieve traffic congestion: 45 percent of Clark County's industrial employment is "concentrated in the southwest quadrant of the county and uses the I-5 highway," according to their report. In that report, the Port of Vancouver said it "plans to develop an additional 550 acres of industrial land in the coming years that will be reliant on Interstate 5 and the Columbia River Crossing."

The port isn't dropping any of its development plans, which include expanding westward and building out its rail network. But what exactly the downfall of the CRC means to the port isn't clear.

The port's executive director, Todd Coleman, said companies will be able to adapt and use certain windows of time to move their products. But as congestion worsens, "those time periods get longer and longer," Coleman said, leading to significant delays.

And growing bridge congestion isn't the only concern. "If there were to be a catastrophic failure," Coleman said, "that would be a huge impact."

It's not yet clear how the region will move forward, Coleman said, but he believes the region will find a new path.

"I think this community will coalesce around economic development," he said. "I think you will see people come up with new ideas."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.