CRC lingers in long-range plans

It's a fluid blueprint, reference point for local, state officials

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

Published:

 

The latest update of Clark County’s long-range Regional Transportation Plan includes a project that goes something like this:

Replace the Interstate 5 Bridge between Vancouver and Portland, rebuild much of the nearby freeway and connect high-capacity transit to Vancouver, all for about $3.3 billion.

Sound familiar?

The future project in the plan isn’t directly called the Columbia River Crossing — the beleaguered megaproject that met its demise earlier this year. But the “I-5 Corridor improvement project” includes many of the same elements and cost estimates. It’s among dozens of current and future projects listed in the 2035 Regional Transportation Plan, now being reviewed by the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council.

All of those projects were submitted by other agencies, said RTC Executive Director Matt Ransom. The CRC was included at the request of the Washington State Department of Transportation, he said. The RTC board has reviewed the draft long-range plan for much of this year, and could adopt the update as soon as next month.

The megaproject’s inclusion has turned a few heads on the RTC board. But Ransom cautioned that the Regional Transportation Plan, updated at least every four years, is not a definitive blueprint for the next two decades. He and others called it a “planning document.”

“In the absence of a different alternative, we’re saying … ‘Hey, there’s still a need for improvement and a series of improvements along the I-5 corridor,’ ” Ransom said. “The plan is not saying that all of those components must be built or are recommended to be built.”

The CRC shut down in May without any funding or enough political support from either Washington or Oregon. Washington pulled out of the project in 2013; an Oregon-led version of the CRC fizzled this year.

The CRC remains dead and unlikely to regain political momentum any time soon, particularly in Washington. The CRC’s last project director, Kris Strickler, took another job at a Vancouver consulting firm after the project folded.

But the CRC is still in WSDOT’s Highway System Plan. WSDOT spokesman Bart Treece said the agency essentially considers it an unfunded project. The I-5 corridor near the state line remains problematic, he said.

“It’s been identified as a transportation safety need,” Treece said. “Just because the project went away doesn’t mean the need has.”

The project detailed in this year’s Regional Transportation plan update borrows mostly outdated CRC figures from 2011. The cost breakdown, for example, uses the same numbers as the CRC’s Final Environmental Impact Statement — before the bridge height changed, before traffic models and toll rates changed, before one state walked away, and before the likelihood of receiving federal discretionary highway money all but evaporated.

Ransom said that information was used because it reflects the “locally preferred alternative” that the agencies adopted. There is still a need for improvements on I-5, and the CRC, though defunct, right now offers the best representation of what a solution might look like, Ransom said.

There is one key difference in the latest update: The expected completion date of the project now reads “2025-2035.”

In October, a few RTC board members questioned why the CRC remained in the region’s long-range plans, given what they called a clear legislative message to move in a different direction. Among those who raised the point was Republican Clark County Commissioner David Madore.

“Who’s driving?” Madore said during the October board meeting. “Is it the Legislature that identifies the major priorities, multibillion-dollar projects, or is it WSDOT that informs the elected officials of what they want?”

At the time, Bart Gernhart, an assistant regional administrator with WSDOT, reiterated that listing a project in the long-range plan doesn’t mean it will be paid for and built. Funding decisions, particularly with large projects, are usually made by state lawmakers, he said.

“This isn’t about which projects get funded in the next two-year or four-year or six-year plan,” Gernhart said during the meeting. “This is deficiencies that we have.”

Ransom said he didn’t hear from any board member about removing that or other projects after the October meeting. When the RTC board discussed the plan again this month, the I-5 megaproject — still included — never came up.

The Regional Transportation Plan also outlines the area’s vision, goals and priorities during the next two decades. Recent presentations to the RTC board have focused on various aspects of the wide-ranging document, last updated in 2011.

RTC has invited people to weigh in on the plan through Dec. 2. Comments can be submitted through an online form at www.rtc.wa.gov, where the full plan is available, or by mail to the Regional Transportation Council, P.O. Box 1366, Vancouver, WA 98666. People can also comment in person during the RTC board’s next meeting at 4 p.m. Dec. 2 in the Sixth Floor Training Room of the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St. in Vancouver.