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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday urged local government and business leaders to amplify their voices in support of the Columbia River Crossing project during his first official visit to Vancouver as governor. He stressed that replacing the bridge will improve safety and boost the state’s economy by attracting new businesses to the region.
Inslee has been a strong supporter of the $3.4 billion CRC, which would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, rebuild nearby freeway interchanges and extend light rail into Vancouver. He said Washington lawmakers need to commit money to the project this year, following Oregon’s lead and seizing a closing window of opportunity to make the project happen.
Failure to take that “one shot” will jeopardize the CRC’s chances for an $850 million federal grant, and set the project back at least a decade, Inslee said.
Inslee called the CRC “the single most important economic development project that is under consideration and at a critical moment in a long, long journey.” He added that failing to move forward on the project will erode the state’s economic competitiveness.
Despite ongoing debates about the bridge’s design, Inslee said, “we just don’t have time to negotiate. We don’t have anything to negotiate, because there’s no other option available to us. This is our one year, and it’s a go or no-go.”
Inslee made those remarks during a business roundtable at the Vancouver Community Library, where he was joined with state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson and about two dozen invited guests. Everyone in the room appeared supportive of the CRC — with the exception of state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who offered a rebuttal to many of Inslee’s statements after a later press conference.
During the roundtable, Inslee encouraged people to speak to their legislators about the CRC as lawmakers prepare to decide its fate in Olympia.
“Decibels count in this business,” Inslee told the group. “It’s not all harmony. It’s decibels.”
CRC leaders say both Washington and Oregon must commit $450 million this year to keep the project on track. Planners hope to begin construction in late 2014.
Inslee said he appreciates the concerns raised by opponents of the CRC. But even with “six and a half million opinions” on how the project should look, there’s only one path forward at this point, he said: the CRC as planned.
Lately, CRC critics have been most outspoken about the light rail line on the proposed bridge and about the height of the new span.
Inslee met earlier Friday with three upriver manufacturers on the Columbia River, whose biggest products wouldn’t fit under the CRC’s proposed 116-foot bridge height. He said he will work hard to mitigate the problems those companies experience because of the CRC’s height, but the project must move forward for the greater good.
Although light rail is a divisive issue in Clark County, Inslee said he doesn’t have “heartburn” about light rail, and that he thinks it’s smart to give people transportation options.
“Until the bridge is built, those questions will still rage until the blue ribbon is cut,” Inslee said. “It’s just so much easier to not build something than to build something. The forces of inertia and doubt are a lot easier to claim than the (discussion) on how to get a job done, particularly with something like this that’s so complex.”
Trucker Walt Keeney of Food Express Inc., said he and many others in the trucking industry want the CRC to move forward. He also said he supports light rail on the new span.
“It gets a lot of cars out of the way of my trucks,” Keeney said. “It makes a definite difference in traffic on the freeway, and I think it’s worth the investment up here.”
Additionally, representatives from grocery retailers, labor unions and the Port of Vancouver, all spoke in support of the CRC. Many supporters said the economy needs a stable framework in order for businesses to thrive, and a solid transportation system is crucial for companies hoping to succeed in Southwest Washington.
Inslee said the CRC will impact the rest of the state, too.
If there is a big enough earthquake and “this bridge goes down, there are tens of thousands of jobs that go down with it,” Inslee said. “This is the place where almost every job in the state of Washington is somehow connected to this bridge.”
Jonathan Avery, chief administrative officer for Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center, told Inslee that building the CRC is a matter of public safety.
“Three hundred ambulances cross the bridge every month,” he said. “Most of those ambulances are carrying either trauma patients, or they’re carrying kids who need to go to the children’s hospital. … And every single month, we have a countless number of patients who are delayed in that trip back and forth.”
Avery also said the Interstate 5 Bridge and surrounding interchanges are a danger to drivers.
“There’s two to three times the accidents in this five-mile area around the bridge than anywhere else on I-5 in Oregon or Washington, and we see those patients in our emergency department,” Avery said.
During the roundtable, Benton discussed the economic impact of possibly losing the three companies financially harmed by the bridge height. Those companies provide 6,000 jobs in Southwest Washington, he said.
“I have grave concerns about the project; I listened very carefully today,” Benton said, adding that downtown Vancouver businesses are worried about how they will be impacted as the new bridge is built.
“I just want you to understand that the business community is split on this too, especially those who are going to be most directly affected by the construction and the limitations of the design,” Benton told Inslee. “The future economic development upriver will be challenged because of the height” of the CRC.
Following the roundtable, Benton also took issue with the way Inslee conducted his visit on Friday.
“It’s unfortunate that the guests were hand-picked and only supporters,” Benton said. “The governor did not have an opportunity to hear from members of the community who are greatly concerned about this project moving forward.”
The press was not invited to cover Inslee’s meetings earlier in the day with Republican legislators or with the three companies located upstream of the bridge. During a press conference after the roundtable, two members of the public asked pointed questions about the CRC. They were told that Inslee would meet with them after the press conference, and that meeting was closed to the press.
Later in the day, Inslee planned to meet with WaferTech in Camas, but he was tight-lipped on details. Rumors are swirling about whether WaferTech, one of the county’s largest employers, will expand the Camas facility, which makes blank silicon wafers on which it imprints circuitry.
“It’s just a stop by,” Inslee said. “I really can’t say much more than that. It’s a very exciting company.”