In Our View: Requiem For a Bridge Plan

The Columbia River Crossing was never built, but it leaves behind $200 million in costs

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The Columbia River Crossing, a much-discussed, much-lamented proposal to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge between Washington and Oregon, is expected to be officially buried Saturday. It was 14 years old.

The cause of death was listed as neglect brought about by intransigence, as the Washington Legislature in 2013 declined to provide funding for a project that was the result of years of work between multiple government agencies and thousands of comments from the public. Oregon lawmakers earlier this year ignored the dying proposal, leading to the planned burial when the project’s office closes and its lease runs out.

Born of humble beginnings in 2000 because of a dire need to improve congestion along the Interstate 5 corridor and to replace bridge spans deemed “functionally obsolete,” the CRC lived a colorful and controversial life. As Columbian reporter Erik Robinson wrote shortly after its birth, “Something has to be done about the traffic bottleneck on Interstate 5 at Delta Park, political leaders on both sides of the Columbia River agreed.” That might have been the last time anybody agreed about anything to do with the CRC.

A bistate task force followed by a bistate committee devised a locally preferred alternative for the project, balancing the wishes of Washington, Oregon, the federal government, Portland, Vancouver, Metro, C-Tran and TriMet. But in the end, the CRC could not hold up under the weight of competing demands: Oregon and the federal government insisted that light rail be included in the project; many Southwest Washington residents were opposed, and their representatives worked to kill the project in the Legislature.

The CRC is survived by:

• Memories of a controversial contract signed last year between C-Tran and TriMet that spelled out how the agencies would operate light rail as part of the CRC. That plan was set to take effect only if the project was built.

• A planning and permitting process that gobbled up nearly $200 million, leaving behind conjecture about whether Washington and Oregon will have to repay the federal money that was spent. Federal officials last year indicated that would be the case, but a final decision has not been made.

• A Washington state audit that identified $17 million in excessive or questionable spending, but no financial misconduct or abuse. Questions remain about Washington’s process for conducting large transportation projects, and several lawmakers have recommended reforms for the state Department of Transportation. The audit of the CRC was limited by the amount of money provided by the Legislature, and a complete audit perhaps could provide more insightful results that pay dividends in the future.

For all its fame and its ability to attract both devotion and ridicule, the CRC likely will best be remembered for a failure to carry out its primary duty — replacing the I-5 Bridge. The current bridge, with one span opened in 1917 and the other in 1958, has drawn scorn for its ability to halt traffic and to serve as “the only stoplight between Mexico and Canada.”

Because of that, political leaders — including members from state houses in both Washington and Oregon — are counting on offspring of the CRC to take the place of its ancestor. Or there’s always a possibility — albeit a remote one — that the CRC could be revived in one or both state Legislatures. If the life of the CRC has taught us anything, it’s that reports of its death are often greatly exaggerated.