Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt delivered the annual State of the City address Wednesday at Fort Vancouver High School, and the 1989 graduate was at ease at his alma mater during what he promised would be a “brief and entertaining” speech.
At 35 minutes, it was relatively brief and included a video he filmed with students.
Leavitt opened with referencing his past, saying he’s a proud member of Trapper Nation. He closed with a quote about the future from former President Abraham Lincoln.
He had, however, harsh words about the present as he blamed unnamed state senators for the March 7 death of the Columbia River Crossing.
“The fact that today I must acknowledge the project has met an unfortunate fate is a travesty,” Leavitt said.
The death followed 15 years of public process, more than 1,000 public meetings and approval from nearly every local board of elected officials with a direct role in the project, Leavitt said. An estimated 1,000 jobs would have been created with the construction of a new bridge, new interchanges and light rail.
More than $190 million has been spent on public involvement, environmental assessment, design and independent expert reviews, he said. Backers included President Barack Obama, U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, state Sen. Annette Cleveland and state Reps. Jim Moeller and Sharon Wylie, as well as Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek.
“This will become known as one of the largest failures to act in the United States of America,” Leavitt said. “The demise of this infrastructure project represents a colossal failure by our state Legislature, led by a few off-base state senators, unfortunately from Southwest Washington,” Leavitt said, making an obvious reference to Republicans Don Benton and Ann Rivers.
“Historians will look back on this project and write of fringe personal ideologies and political expediency taking precedence over good public policy, public safety and investment in your future,” Leavitt continued.
The legacy “rests with those state legislators who failed to act in the best interest of our community, our state and our country,” he said.
Leavitt said he doesn’t know what will happen next.
“But I do know that we need a new bridge, and I will continue to support a solution,” he said.
In light of the “debacle,” he’ll propose a statewide “Fair Warning” bill, which would require posted signs on every bridge clearly stating its age and safety rating, as defined by structural engineers.
“Do you think that might get some people’s attention?” he asked.
He also believes infrastructure investment should be mandated through the state constitution, much like education.
“All of this because some of our state politicians can’t do their jobs,” Leavitt said.
“OK, I got that out of my system,” he said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Though neither Benton nor Rivers attended the speech, Rivers did respond Wednesday to a request for a comment on Leavitt’s remarks.
“When it comes to the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing, I did my job as a state senator,” she wrote in an email. “I freely admit that I represent the people of my district and that I reflect their views and values. Mayor Leavitt, apparently, takes a different view and feels comfortable ignoring his constituency on this issue: that, of course, is up to him and those who voted for him,” she wrote.
“The people of my district, overall, have made it clear to me in a variety of ways that they opposed a bridge with light rail,” Rivers wrote. “Several of us over the years attempted compromise positions where the bridge would be built at a height that saved tens of millions for mitigation charges while stripping off the hated light rail that was the only reason this project existed in the first place, according to the Oregon State Supreme Court. Each and every effort was rejected out of hand, with Gov. Kitzhaber declaring that if there was ‘no light rail, then there would be no bridge,’ ” she wrote.
Rivers said Leavitt needs to understand the project isn’t about any one official.
“It’s about the people we serve. And hopefully, he’s learned that lesson and we can move on,” she wrote.
Benton did not respond to a request for comment.
Students played role
The rest of the speech was spent highlighting accomplishments such as the $40 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority to begin development of a bus rapid transit system along Fourth Plain, downtown waterfront development and new leadership in the city’s police and parks departments.
Leavitt pledged he and the city council will work this year on what they want the city to look like in 2020 and how they can achieve that vision.
Students played a prominent role in Wednesday’s event. Some welcomed attendees and ushered them to the auditorium, while band students played on stage and Amy Rushforth, a senior, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In a video played before Leavitt took the stage, students showed what has changed at Fort since Leavitt was a student, including magnet medical, culinary arts and welding/machine technology programs. A group of orchestra students, including junior Nadia Muzhkevich and freshman Anna Pavliuk, performed prior to the event.
Both enjoyed playing a role in the event, and Pavliuk observed the school made a bigger deal over the mayor than Gov. Jay Inslee, who visited the school last week.
Fort Principal Scott Parker agreed with that assessment.
“This is our city. Our mayor graduated from Fort. This was a bigger deal for us, for sure,” Parker said.
Leavitt, a senior civil engineer at PBS Engineering + Environmental, regularly visits Fort classrooms, Parker said. During Leavitt’s speech, a video showed students interacting with Leavitt in Jim Stoda’s Contemporary World Problems class, and Stoda said on camera that kids thought it was cool a student from Fort went on to become mayor.
While no longer the designated high school in the district for English Language Learners students, Fort has a diverse population, with students from more than 50 nations who speak 40 different languages, Parker said. According to the school’s 2013 performance report, 73 percent of Fort students come from low-income families, compared to the district average of 53 percent.
Leavitt ended his speech with a message to students: “Your city is on a trajectory of success and prosperity. There is every reason for you to be optimistic about your future in Vancouver,” he said.
“This is a community where you can realize your dreams and aspirations. You can take what you’ve learned from your Contemporary World Problems class and put it to work. Your Skills Center work helps you start a career. You can pursue a college degree or start your own business right here in Vancouver. You can begin a family or you could become the mayor of the city. Your opportunities in Vancouver are endless. But this means we all must be persistent about our personal goals as well as participation in community issues. And that must happen now, and not later,” Leavitt said.
“I’ll close with a wise reminder from President Abraham Lincoln, ‘You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.’ ”