Oregon lawmaker 'doubtful' of CRC action

'It is my belief that Oregon is done with the bridge issue,' he says

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A key backer of the Columbia River Crossing in Oregon said this month he believes his state “is done” with the issue, and the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement won’t make it to a vote when its Legislature convenes in February.

Oregon state Sen. Lee Beyer made the comments in an email to Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center. Rivers had earlier written Beyer and other lawmakers on the subject of tolling following a committee hearing on the CRC in Salem last week. Beyer, a Democrat from Springfield, Ore., co-chairs Oregon’s joint legislative committee on the project.

“I am doubtful that the CRC will make it to a vote in February,” Beyer wrote to Rivers. “Having worked on this issue as the committee chair for a few years now, it is my belief that Oregon is done with the bridge issue, and we can just hope we don’t have an earthquake or that accidents do not get too bad. My guess is the bridge issue is dead in our state for the next decade or two. Personally, I am shifting my attention to other transportation issues.”

Lawmakers in Salem are mulling whether to double down on a $2.7 billion version of the project with Oregon at the helm. The Oregon Legislature committed money to the project last year, only to see Washington pull out. Now leaders are chasing a pared-down CRC that still replaces the I-5 Bridge and extends light rail to Vancouver, but eliminates most freeway work in Washington — and puts all the debt burden on Oregon.

Though CRC funding sailed through the Oregon Legislature last year, many lawmakers have balked at doing so again with greater financial risk. The revised project relies mainly on toll revenue — collected mostly from Southwest Washington commuters — and federal money. Oregon would also have to commit state funding of its own for it to get off the ground, officials say. The Oregon Legislature convenes Feb. 3.

Beyer confirmed this week that he doesn’t see the CRC coming up again, but “I don’t know for a fact that it won’t,” Beyer said in an email. Among the CRC’s strongest supporters are Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek and Gov. John Kitzhaber, both Democrats.

But in Oregon, like Washington, Beyer said, the CRC has become “a bit of an irrational political football.”

“Positions are being taken not on facts but rather on what will play best in the next election,” he said.

Washington leaders have indicated they’re not interested in coming back to the table on the CRC. Many believe the Oregon-led version now under consideration is the project’s last chance at materializing. But the CRC still faces major questions, and has become something very different from the project that planners laid out in its Final Environmental Impact Statement in 2011.

Beyer said the demand for the bridge on the Oregon side hasn’t diminished. But if the CRC implodes for good, pivoting to another concept won’t be quick, he said.

“Even if there were resources, the plain fact of having to restart planning and permitting would extend the build cycle by at least a decade, probably more,” Beyer said. “Those who think there is another bridge option waiting in the wings are simply mistaken.”

Meeting with engineer

Meanwhile, a group of leaders in Southwest Washington appear to be looking beyond the CRC. Last week, Rivers spearheaded a meeting of both Republicans and Democrats, CRC supporters and opponents, to talk about what options are out there, she said. Among those in attendance was the president of Figg Engineering, a Florida-based firm that specializes in bridges.

Rivers said she met Linda Figg at a convention in the area late last year, and invited her to come back to meet with local officials. Those who attended last week’s gathering said the presentation included various bridge concepts and information about the industry, but no specific proposal.

State Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said the meeting was informative, but she’s not convinced there’s a clear path to pursue if the CRC falters. “But I’m certainly willing to keep an open mind,” she said.

Wylie said she still supports the CRC and believes Washington should have moved forward with the effort. Any plan still faces a divided community after a CRC process that left plenty to be desired, she said.

Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith also came away impressed, but he reiterated his support for the CRC. Regardless of what happens, keeping local leaders at the table together is a good thing, he said.

“Anything to keep the doors and communications open to get that bridge replaced, that’s where I am,” Smith said.

The meeting was also attended by staff of U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas. Herrera Beutler, who has been critical of the CRC, said Thursday she welcomed conversations that may result in an alternative and give her something to fight for at the federal level. The congresswoman was in Vancouver on Thursday for a “community coffee” meeting.

Rivers was among the leading opponents of the CRC in the Washington Legislature last year, when lawmakers adjourned without committing any funding to the project.

“I’ve always been of the mind that you don’t get to say no unless you’ve got a solution,” Rivers said.