In Our View: Focus on Transportation

New approach to bridge improvements requires broader buy-in by the feds

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What really killed the CRC?

State Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, says the federal government's reluctance to contribute money to the CRC's construction rather than just light rail is the likely culprit. And we believe his argument has merit.

In a meeting this week with The Columbian's editorial board, Harris argued that if the federal government truly believed this project was extremely important, it would have financially supported the construction of a bridge (transportation) rather than just light rail (transit.) It was this disconnect that doomed everything.

The solution, according to Harris, is for the federal government to come back to the table as a transportation player. And to come with an open wallet. If light rail follows — some day — terrific. But putting all the eggs in the light-rail basket results in nothing more than a scramble.

The distinction between "transportation" and "transit" dollars can be nebulous. The federal government had offered $850 million for the construction of light rail — but not operations or maintenance — on the project, highlighting an emphasis on mass transit. Oregon was on board with that proposal, approving its $450 million share of the deal. But when the Washington Legislature balked at providing its $450 million, the CRC was shuttered.

While the autopsy reveals the cause of death to be intransigence on both sides, we are left to ponder where compromises can be made. The bottom line is that improvements must be made to the Interstate 5 span over the Columbia River, a spot that more than one pundit has dubbed "the only stoplight between Mexico and Canada."

Meanwhile, Harris asserts that the federal government was disingenuous in approaching the CRC. Consider what then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said while urging lawmakers to support the plan during an April visit to Olympia.

"There is no project like this in America," LaHood said. "That's why we love this project. We do. I talk about this project all over America."

Or consider what Gov. Jay Inslee said at that time: "We're either going to grow our economy and build this bridge, or we're going to start to erode the transportation infrastructure, the I-5 corridor, the single-most important artery in the Western United States."

Now the federal government (LaHood has since been replaced by Anthony Foxx) and Inslee must consider alternatives. As Harris said: "What's interesting about transportation is the needs don't go away."

No, they don't. The Interstate 5 Bridge remains a roadblock to progress, growth and economic development throughout the metro area, and wishful thinking will not alter that situation.

Editorially, The Columbian supported the proposed CRC project. But we recognize the need for compromise and the vital importance of reviving the project while continuing meaningful discussions toward finding a solution to the existing problems.

There's no guarantee, of course, that the intransigence will dissipate. If the next proposal does not include light rail, there's no telling whether Oregon would be on board with the project, leaving an already tired discussion to continue for untold decades.

That would be unacceptable. As the governor and representatives of the federal government have stressed, this project is vitally important. But, as Harris pointed out, the feds' words have spoken louder than their actions. Washington, Oregon and the federal government need to sit down and find a path that will result in a new bridge. And the sooner everyone starts, the better.