Just weeks after the demise of the Columbia River Crossing project, a bipartisan group of Southwest Washington lawmakers is asking state transportation officials to regroup and discuss a new solution for updating the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River.
"It is time for all interested parties to come back to the table and put forward a plan that both meets the needs of the region and enjoys the support of our constituents," the letter states. "We remain committed to a long-term solution that will modernize and upgrade the current transportation corridor across the river."
The letter was sent Friday from U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, to Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson. It included the signatures of six Republican and three Democratic state legislators from Clark County.
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee pulled the plug on the embattled CRC project late last month, after Republicans and fiscal conservatives in Washington's Senate declined to advance a $10 billion gas-tax package that would have committed Washington's $450 million share to the project. The CRC's failure has since made national headlines.
The letter sent Friday to Peterson says Interstate 5 is critical to commerce and to commuters. It asks Peterson to study how safe the I-5 Bridge is, and how it could be upgraded to address any safety problems.
In the letter, lawmakers added that they "stand ready to fight for funding to ensure that people's safety is protected and that the bridge is not compromised by an earthquake or other catastrophic event," but that any new plan "must focus on safety and the movement of highway and river traffic."
State Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, signed the letter, as did state Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver; Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver; Liz Pike, R-Camas; Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver; Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver; and Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.
In the months leading up to the CRC's death, Republican legislators from Clark County railed against the project for a number of reasons, including its $3.4 billion price tag, its inclusion of a light rail line that would connect Portland to Vancouver, and its 116-foot clearance over the river, which would have blocked some river traffic.
Legislators who supported the CRC said that, while the plan might not have been perfect, CRC officials had tried to include the desires of both Oregon and Washington citizens when planning a new bridge.
CRC supporters also said failure to act this year would set an I-5 bridge replacement back at least a decade. It's unclear whether Friday's letter might speed up that process.
State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, declined to sign the letter to Peterson. Cleveland said she agrees with Herrera Beutler's call for lawmakers to work together, but Cleveland didn't see the point in signing the letter when she's been working with Peterson for months on moving the CRC forward.
"I think some letters can spur action and other letters can say nice things," Cleveland said. Herrera Beutler's letter was the latter, she added. "I don't need to sign a letter to (Peterson) to signal that I want to work with her. We've been doing just that."
Cleveland said she interpreted Herrera Beutler's letter as a call to start over on an I-5 Bridge replacement, which would waste the roughly $170 million spent on CRC planning. Cleveland said she hopes at least parts of the CRC can be salvaged for whatever happens next.
"I can't even fathom starting over from square one," Cleveland said. "I feel very strongly that we have to be good stewards of our taxpayers' dollars."
Herrera Beutler's spokesman, Casey Bowman, said by email Friday that the letter isn't asking for officials to start over completely.
"The letter is requesting that WSDOT work with the region's legislators to make the current bridge safe while they also work on a long-term solution," Bowman wrote.
ODOT Spokesman Patrick Cooney said Friday that Gov. Kitzhaber recently asked ODOT to look for ways to upgrade the bridge now that the CRC project is shutting down. ODOT is the agency responsible for maintaining the I-5 Bridge, though ODOT and WSDOT were working together on the plan to replace the bridge.
"He asked us to see if there were any standalone work that we could do on the Oregon side of the river that would improve safety or reduce congestion, and that is what we will do," Cooney said. He added that Oregon transportation officials are "working with remaining WSDOT staff to shut down the project."