State legislators from Clark County got an earful Saturday as constituents sounded off on the Columbia River Crossing project in a series of town hall meetings.
The tone of the meetings varied. The town hall meeting with legislators from the 49th Legislative District, all of whom support the project, included presentations by CRC staff and supporters. The meeting with legislators from the 17th Legislative District included a number of questions from citizens critical of the $3.4 billion megaproject, which would replace the Interstate 5 bridge, rebuild miles of freeway and interchanges, and extend light rail from Portland into Vancouver.
The two town hall meetings with legislators from the 18th Legislative District also touched on the CRC project, along with the topics of education, firearms, and various bills in the House and Senate.
During the Saturday morning town hall with legislators from the 49th Legislative District — Vancouver Democrats Sen. Annette Cleveland and Reps. Jim Moeller and Sharon Wylie — CRC co-directors Nancy Boyd and Kris Strickler gave a presentation about the project and answered questions from legislators and the audience. A panel of CRC supporters also shared their views about the project.
Shannon Walker — president of the Clark, Skamania, Klickitat Central Labor Council — said she believes the majority of Southwest Washington supports the project. Even though the opposition has been loud, they’re not the majority, she said.
“I’ll tell you what my fellow union brothers and sisters want, they don’t want a lot, they want to go to work,” Walker said to applause.
They also want American steel and concrete used to build the bridge and local people put to work first, she said.
The CRC estimates the project will create 1,900 jobs per year during construction and create 4,200 jobs and $231 million in additional wages in 2030, Boyd said.
Both panels of speakers answered several written questions from the audience, including questions about light rail funding, mitigation costs, the need for tolls and the bridge design. Legislators plan to post the questions and answers from the town hall on their websites.
Regarding mitigation, Strickler, the CRC project director in Oregon, said CRC officials are still discussing possible solutions with three businesses impacted by a 116-foot tall bridge. Strickler didn’t provide specifics about the cost of the mitigation but said the two states will split the mitigation costs 50-50. Those costs are “far less” than the cost to raise the bridge height to 125 feet or add a lift to the bridge, Strickler said.
Speakers also took a few live questions from the audience of about 150 people.
Vancouver resident John Dersch questioned the fairness in project funding. As an employee of a Portland business, Dersch pays Oregon income tax and will be tolled to drive to work five days a week.
“The commuter in Vancouver is going to pay the brunt of this,” he said.
Kelly Parker, president of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, said the goal is to get jobs in Vancouver so residents won’t need to travel to Oregon to work. Wylie agreed and said businesses won’t want to come to Clark County if the community isn’t willing to tie into the regional transportation system.
Those goals, Dersch responded, are long-term and won’t come to fruition until he’s retired.
Oregon residents aren’t immune to tolls, Strickler said. Plus, Washington residents get the benefit of tying into Oregon’s well-established light rail system, he added.
Legislators from the 18th Legislative District — Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Reps. Liz Pike, R-Camas, and Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver — also heard from constituents who wanted their representatives to continuing fighting the CRC.
During the afternoon town hall at Camas High School, Pike said she has drafted a bill that will halt CRC funding as soon as its passed. The CRC currently spends $4 million a month; Pike’s bill will stop the hemorrhaging, she said. Pike plans to circulate the bill for signatures next week.
Rivers said she wants the best possible project for the best possible cost. That means being deliberate in reviewing the project before agreeing to funding.
“I’m not vulnerable to the timeshare pitch,” Rivers said, adding that claims the project must move forward immediately are “baloney.”
Rivers wants to proceed with caution because, she said, tolling Interstate 205 to help pay for Interstate 5 is still a possibility. Overrun project costs for the state Highway 502 floating bridge in Seattle mean legislators are considering tolls on Interstate 90 to help pay the tab, Rivers said.
“There’s a precedent there,” she said. “The past is prologue.”
During the 17th District meeting Saturday evening, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, made it clear that they did not support the CRC project.
“I do not want the bridge that is proposed today at all,” Harris told the crowd of nearly 70. “I certainly do not want light rail, and I have a lot of other questions before you will get me on board with the particular plan that they want.”
Harris appeared particularly concerned with the mitigation costs associated with businesses along the Columbia River that would be harmed by the project. For example, Harris said, if Greenberry Industrial relocated to the Port of Vancouver, downstream of the bridge, the port would have to be upgraded to support 300 million tons of weight. That would cost $156 million, Harris said.
Eliciting applause, Benton called for a third bridge over the Columbia River rather than a project that replaces the I-5 Bridge. He also said the motivation behind the CRC project is to bring light rail transportation into Vancouver.
Portland’s light rail system is “poorly managed financially, and they want our money,” Benton said. “That’s the primary reason for the project.”
The two legislators also were asked if they would support an increase in gas taxes this year to pay for the state’s transportation needs. Harris and Benton both said they want to see cost-saving reforms in the transportation department first.
“My position is reforms first, and revenue second, because when you do revenue first, you never get reform,” Benton said. “We’ve been wasting money like you can’t believe through the department of transportation. We have our own example right here in Vancouver. We’ve wasted $150 million, in my opinion, on the Columbia River Crossing project, and we continue to waste money every day on it.”