Monday, February 17, 2020
Feb. 17, 2020

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Crossing sponsors set closed-door meeting

Officials aim to resolve differences over I-5 bridge plan

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Portland and Vancouver political leaders plan to move behind closed doors today to chew over the fate of the biggest public works project in the region’s history.

Members of a high-level committee advising Washington and Oregon’s governors on the multibillion-dollar Columbia River Crossing will try to work out their differences over lunch at the Portland law office of Henry Hewitt, who serves as chairman of the Project Sponsors Council.

Confirmed participants include Paula Hammond, Washington’s transportation secretary; her Oregon counterpart, Matthew Garrett; Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt; Portland Mayor Sam Adams; Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart; and Metro council President David Bragdon. The one remaining council member, TriMet director Fred Hansen, announced he was retiring Wednesday and is not planning to attend.

The public is not welcome.

“It is not a Project Sponsors Council meeting, and it is not a lunch that is open to the public,” said Mandy Putney, a spokeswoman for the bistate Columbia River Crossing project office in Vancouver.

Stuart, who had been planning to join the discussion by teleconference, late Wednesday invited a reporter to listen in.

“It is an important discussion, and the public has a right to be in on it,” he said.

Two decades in the works, the crossing project has arrived at a crucial juncture.

Currently estimated to cost between $2.6 billion and $3.6 billion, the project would replace two existing three-lane drawbridges over the Columbia; improve four miles of Interstate 5, and extend Portland’s light-rail line into downtown Vancouver. Project planners anticipate tolls will generate the local financial contribution.

Political support began to fray last year.

Political leaders in Portland fretted about a 10- or 12-lane bridge fueling sprawl and damaging neighborhoods, while Vancouver residents elected a new mayor based in part on his opposition to bridge tolls.

In January, Adams, Leavitt, Bragdon and Stuart fired off a letter to the two governors declaring that, although they generally supported a new crossing, the current design and financing are “unacceptable.”

Hammond, in an interview after the letter became public, pointedly noted that the four elected officials had been meeting in private.

“They’ve been pretty secretive as to what’s in the letter,” she said after it arrived at the governors’ desks. “Now we have to digest that.”

Today, Hammond herself is planning to move behind closed doors in an attempt to address the group’s concerns. A closed meeting is permissible under Oregon and Washington open meetings laws in this case because the bistate council cannot be considered strictly an institution of either state, according to a review by a Columbian attorney.

However, Stuart acknowledged the public could legitimately be concerned about the prospect of dealmaking behind closed doors, especially involving a project with such a major effect on land use, commuting habits and pocketbooks for generations to come.

“This is the people’s project,” he said. “The people have to support this for it to happen.”

The price tag has already been considerable. Through the end of February, transportation officials and consultants had burned through $87 million in state and federal funding just for planning.

Stuart and Bragdon both said they had hoped to tackle some of the areas of disagreement during last week’s public meeting, in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Oregon Department of Transportation’s regional office in Portland.

“These sorts of projects can only come to fruition if all the agencies are on the same page and working together,” Bragdon said Wednesday afternoon. “We feel like the state agencies have not wanted to do that. Now, maybe they will tomorrow.”

Hewitt underscored the stakes with a comment at the end of the last official Project Sponsors Council meeting, Friday in Portland. Hewitt drew upon his background working on transportation issues for two decades, including seven years chairing the Oregon Transportation Commission.

“If local elected officials don’t support it, it won’t happen,” he said. “That’s the beginning and end of the legal analysis.”

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.

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