After the Legislature failed to complete its work earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee dispatched several signals indicating he would participate more aggressively in the special session. On Monday, he did precisely that, vetoing $81 million in funding for the Columbia River Crossing not because he doesn't support the CRC, but because he wants the Legislature to match the $450 million Oregon has committed to the project. Inslee sees "no wisdom in expending (the $81 million) if the state of Washington does not contribute its share of funding necessary to complete the project.
"We see Inslee's Monday gambit as proper; it makes no sense for the Legislature to meet only a portion of its 2013 obligation — just to "keep the lights on" at the CRC — especially with legislators dawdling as the deadline approaches later this year for securing $800 million in federal funds. Last month, The Columbian urged the Legislature to approve the matching funds, emphasizing: "For the long-term future of Clark County, the CRC — microscopically analyzed, intricately studied and massively debated — must move forward."
Inslee provided a second reason for making what Erik Smith of the Washington State Wire described as a "breathtaking all-or-nothing gamble." The governor said: "If the Coast Guard permit is not issued, there is no need for the waste of $81 million since no other option is viable." He's correct on that point, as well, but there's some encouraging news on that front. Two of the three upriver companies that would be impacted by a lower bridge clearance of 116 feet are making progress in mitigation talks with the CRC. Success on that front could lead to Coast Guard approval of the project.
As they have throughout this decade-plus project, critics have provided understandable complaints, and they spoke up again on Monday after the governor's surprise veto. State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said Inslee's veto "feels a lot like he just pulled the plug on the project." Rivers has consistently provided eloquent and rational opposition to the CRC, but as we editorialized on March 6, "no one will be blessedly content with the final product. But what is before us now is reasonable."
Such a hotly disputed but sensible compromise as the CRC was described this way by Smith of the Washington State Wire: There is "no drawspan (in order) to allow the passage of barge loads that require high clearance. There is no rise in the center, thus allowing the Portland-area light-rail system to gain entry to Clark County via the new bridge. And the overall bridge height has been kept low enough to avoid trouble for the flight paths at a nearby civil aviation airfield on the Washington side of the river."
That's the best plan any rational observer could expect. Many people in Clark County don't like light rail, but many in Portland won't support a new bridge without it. Many people here want a third bridge, but many Portland officials reject the environmental intrusions and new freeways that a third bridge would require.
The CRC's locally preferred alternative was approved five years ago by six key agencies on both sides of the river and is endorsed by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, not to mention two governors and federal transportation officials.
Inslee's gamble might backfire, in which case it's back to Square One on a new bridge. But instead of that gloomy outcome, we hope his aggressive tactic inspires the Legislature to do its part and match Oregon's contribution to the CRC.