Former state Sen. Don Benton, the combative Republican legislator who led the battle to kill the Columbia River Crossing project, is continuing to fight against renewed interest in Olympia to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.
Only this time, he’s doing so from his new position as senior White House adviser to President Donald Trump.
Last week, Benton sent text messages to several Republican state lawmakers expressing disapproval of their efforts to revive conversations about the bridge.
He told Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, who replaced him in the state Senate, “no good for you can come out of this,” according to Wilson.
He warned Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, that the measure could open the door for light rail and reminded Vick the people he represents don’t want light rail on the bridge, according to Vick. And he sent Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, a short note to simply express disappointment with the measure.
Wilson was a little surprised to see the message on her phone.
“I thought he should be busy back there worrying about things in Washington, D.C.,” Wilson said. “He has a different way of going about things, and I’m not him. So, I chose to work collaboratively with my colleagues — and apparently, he didn’t agree with that.”
Vick said the text was “a little out of the blue.”
“I heard some (text messages from Benton) were more stern than others. Mine was pretty informational in that regard,” Vick said, adding the messages centered mainly on the controversial element of light rail.
Despite Benton’s efforts, the bill sailed out of the Senate on Monday evening with 45 votes in favor and four against.
Southwest Washington lawmakers have been working on the measure to declare the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project a priority. With a growing movement in favor of focusing on a new east or west county bridge before addressing the I-5 crossing, the measure, Senate Bill 5608, would shift the focus back to the Interstate 5 corridor.
The bill also calls for an inventory and cataloguing of all the previous work done on the Columbia River Crossing and the creation of a legislative action committee, made up of key stakeholders and Department of Transportation employees in Oregon and Washington. It carves out $350,000 for the necessary work and mandates an inventory report from the Washington State Department of Transportation back to the Legislature by Dec. 1.
And as it’s currently drafted, it keeps any talk of mass transit vague and calls for an examination of other bridges in the region.
Wilson pointed out the measure doesn’t create a project, but rather a process.
“I guess the surprise to me is why would they not want me at the table discussing the process?” Wilson said, noting she was also an opponent of the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing project. “If I’m not at the table, my views aren’t being considered. We’re going to have the public involved. This is a wide open, transparent process we’re trying to engage in.”
Benton didn’t stop at contacting Southwest Washington lawmakers. He also reached out to Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
“We actually talked. It started out with texts, but I have heard from him,” King said. “He has concerns about reopening the bridge (conversations) and what that might lead to. He has one view, and not everyone agrees with that view.”
King was instrumental in tweaking the Senate measure, which recently passed out of his committee. Initially, legislators from the region wanted the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project to be declared a project of statewide significance, which could have helped expedite the permitting and construction process. The current measure postpones that declaration, but it carves out room for lawmakers to make it in the future.
King said he didn’t like that designation.
“At this point, it’s not a project. It’s a group getting together to talk about a project, so how can you call it a project of statewide significance? If we move ahead and Oregon wants to move ahead and have those conversations, that’s something we’ll consider at a future date,” King said.
King said he also wants to ensure that all the crossings are considered, including the Bridge of the Gods and the Hood River Bridge.
“It’s entirely possible to get consensus and bring in Oregon and the feds (federal government). We may need to look at a variety of things and could include how you combine that into one bridge package,” he said.
King said Benton, who now serves as a senior White House adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency, believes an east-county bridge should be built first.
“But again,” King said, “that’s his opinion.”
Benton did not return a call for comment.