UPDATE: Governor calls Benton, Rivers a brick wall to economic progress and CRC (with video)

Inslee also tours new health and bioscience high school

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

Published:

Updated: July 26, 2013, 10:13 PM

 

A group of Clark County business leaders told Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday that they weren’t ready to surrender just yet on the Columbia River Crossing project.

Inslee told them he will do everything in his power to try to move the CRC forward before a crucial Sept. 30 federal deadline for the project, but apparently nothing has changed since the Legislature’s second special session ended June 29. The legislature, which was asked to commit $450 million to the project, has adjourned without doing so, and the CRC offices have already begun shutting down.

Inslee, a Democrat, called state Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, a brick wall to economic progress in the state, because of their efforts this year to block money for the CRC.

“The road to this bridge runs through two senators from this region,” Inslee told the group while on a tour of Clark County. “Those two senators have stymied any progress on this bridge project. … Until that changes, there’s not a lot I or you can do about that.”

Even if the controversial CRC project had been removed from the list of projects in this year’s $10 billion transportation revenue plan, the bill still would have died, Inslee said. That’s because the conservative Senate majority caucus simply declined to advance it, he said.

“Zilch, bupkes, zero,” was how Inslee described the mostly-Republican Senate majority caucus’ effort to move forward on a transportation package. “There was no plan. … We had no vote on a transportation package in the Senate this year. There was no compromise offered. There was no project list. There was nothing.”

Inslee emphasized that transportation improvements are vital to the state’s economy, and companies consider traffic and freight congestion when deciding where to locate and expand.

Leaders disappointed

The 25 business leaders Inslee addressed in Camas during Friday’s roundtable talk thanked the governor for investing his political capital in fighting for the CRC this year. They also spoke of their disappointment in the project’s failure and about what could have been.

John Rudi, president of Thompson Metal Fab, said it was too bad that the height of the proposed bridge was used by critics to attack the project. Thompson Metal Fab was one of the businesses upstream from the Interstate 5 Bridge affected by the height issue. The company would have received mitigation money from the CRC for a loss of future revenues caused by the CRC’s lower bridge height.

“You’re never going to build a bridge high enough to satisfy me, and that’s OK,” Rudi told Inslee, adding that the cost to raise a bridge high enough to accommodate all river users would be “astronomical.”

Thomas Hickman of Oregon Iron Works, another business that would have received mitigation dollars, said if the CRC’s demise eliminates the chance to secure federal dollars for a new bridge, then his company loses the chance to create more jobs. Oregon Iron Works helps construct bridges, and the federal dollars would have required that the CRC contract with U.S. companies rather than cheaper overseas suppliers.

“It would have added literally thousands of jobs,” Hickman said. Oregon Iron Works and Thompson Metal Fab are “two of the largest bridge builders left in the western United States.”

At a later press conference, Inslee said his goal at the Camas business meeting was to regroup on the CRC following the 2013 legislative session, and to make sure the community knows who dropped the ball on the transportation package and the CRC. He said he met with Rivers and Benton several times to try to change their minds, but no line of reasoning worked.

When reached for comment Friday, Rivers reiterated that the CRC project was too flawed to accept. Even though Thompson Metal Fab and Oregon Iron Works are behind the project, the proposed bridge height of 116 feet over the Columbia River would still prevent other companies from locating upstream of the I-5 Bridge, she said.

“This bridge actually poses an economic development threat,” Rivers said. She added that she is working with legislators from the 49th District in Vancouver to try to come up with a different path to address problems on the current Interstate 5 Bridge.

“I am hopeful that the governor will get back to the table” to discuss other options, Rivers said.

As Inslee and some business leaders continue to beat the CRC drum, the CRC office in Vancouver has started the shutdown process. About half of the CRC staff has been let go. The remaining staff, paid with leftover federal planning dollars, are working to archive information and tie up other loose ends.

“All closeout activities, with the exception of public disclosure and contractual obligations, will be concluded by Sept. 1, 2013,” Washington Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson said in announcement earlier this month.

Other Vancouver stops

On Friday, Inslee also got a sneak peek at Vancouver’s new Henrietta Lacks BioScience High School, which will open for a public tour at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. A group of students led Inslee to classrooms tailored to teach about the pharmacy and nursing professions. They also showed off the solar panels visible from the school’s flower-lined balcony.

The school, at 9105 N.E. Ninth St., will open in September. Nicknamed HeLa High, it will offer five areas of study: nursing/patient services; pharmacy; biomedical engineering; biotechnology; and biomedical informatics.

Inslee called the new high school, which was built with federal stimulus money, a national leader when it comes to teaching the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills that are pivotal to the United State’s economic future.

Inslee capped his Vancouver schedule with a game of H-O-R-S-E with Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and children at the Boys & Girls Club O.K. Clubhouse & Teen Turf Club at the Jim Parsley Community Center. Inslee’s team won.

Columbian writer Stephanie Rice contributed to this report.

Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com