Columbia River Crossing shutdown continues

Friday was final day for more than half of 96 staffers; project set to be completely closed by Sept. 1

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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As the shutdown of the Columbia River Crossing accelerates, dozens of workers packed up and left the project's downtown Vancouver office for the final time Friday.

Their departure marked the first significant wave of CRC staff to be relieved of their duties. More will follow in the coming weeks. The closeout will conclude by Sept. 1, state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson wrote in an email to lawmakers on Friday.

By then, only pending public records requests -- already deferred to the Washington State Department of Transportation -- and contractual obligations will remain, Peterson said.

"There won't be a lot of activity," CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney said Friday. "Already the office is quite changed."

The Sept. 1 shutdown date is much sooner than initially estimated. CRC officials earlier indicated the process may last until the end of the year.

The CRC issued a stop-work order to its consultants and partners on July 1, two days after Washington lawmakers adjourned without committing any funding to the beleaguered megaproject. Hours later, both states' governors pulled the plug on the $3.4 billion plan to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail to Vancouver and rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the river.

"The only work authorized as of July 1, 2013, is the minimal amount necessary for final closeout activities," Peterson wrote.

More than half of the CRC's 96 staff left for good Friday. One person could be seen carrying a box of items near the office front door Friday afternoon, but project officials did not allow photos to be taken inside the office. That stance was reiterated from WSDOT headquarters in Olympia in the interest of "respecting their privacy."

Many CRC staff are consultants who may go back to work for their respective firms. Others could be transferred to other public agencies, but likely not everyone. Twenty-two WSDOT employees continue to work on the CRC. Fifteen of those workers will be moved off the project by Aug. 2, with the remaining staff completing the shutdown by Sept. 1. All 22 of those positions will be eliminated from WSDOT, said agency spokesman Lars Erickson.

The abrupt end of the CRC left several moving parts in limbo, and the two states seemingly scrambling to come up with a plan to shut the project down. With no funding from Washington, the Oregon Department of Transportation will be on the hook for any work it wants to continue for later use, said spokesman Patrick Cooney.

Oregon eyes improvements

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked for a review of possible improvements on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. That may include a revamp of Portland's Hayden Island and Marine Drive interchanges, though it's too soon to tell what those efforts may look like -- all previous work assumed that there would be a new bridge over the river, Cooney said.

Any stand-alone work in Oregon would be funded through ODOT only, Cooney said. That's why the state may choose to carry out some existing contracts, he added, in case some engineering and design work might be valuable in the future.

"The Washington Legislature didn't give the project funds to shut down properly," Cooney said. "We need to make sure it's shut down properly, to get proper work that's put on the shelf."

WSDOT's share of the closeout is $2.9 million, according to Peterson. It's unclear where that money will come from in the agency's budget. The project office will put much of its focus on archiving records in the coming weeks, Putney said.

The CRC has not withdrawn its application for a bridge permit from the U.S. Coast Guard. But project leaders never reached a compensation deal with Thompson Metal Fab, one of three major upriver manufacturers that would have been affected by the proposed bridge height. No further negotiations with Thompson are scheduled, according to Peterson.

The CRC did ink deals to compensate two other nearby companies, Oregon Iron Works and Greenberry Industrial, for economic losses due to reduced clearance under a new bridge. But WSDOT now has no money allocated to pay its share of those agreements. And they're only valid with approval from the Coast Guard, Peterson said.

The CRC spent more than $170 million in planning before the shut-down order came. The Washington Legislature didn't approve any additional planning money, but it did set aside $200,000 for a forensic audit of the project. It appears that will still be carried out: The State Auditor's Office has already requested materials from the CRC.

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