The Washington State Transportation Commission heard an earful from Columbia River Crossing opponents during a visit to Vancouver on Monday. But the daylong meeting ended abruptly after Chairman Dick Ford cut in to say their complaints, however valid, were misplaced.
“We’re the wrong people to talk to,” Ford said after the meeting. “This is going to be decided by the legislatures of the two states and their governors.”
Ten people signed up to address the seven-member commission, mostly about the $3 billion-plus CRC project that would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, bring light rail to Vancouver and rebuild the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River. Residents raised familiar objections to the project’s design, its cost, and what they felt is a lack of transparency and public involvement in the planning process. The CRC’s final environmental impact statement was approved by local agencies earlier this year, and is awaiting federal approval.
Among those who spoke was Vancouver forensic accountant Tiffany Couch, who was hired several months ago by local businessman and CRC critic David Madore to look into the project’s finances. Couch said Monday she has uncovered “significant questionable transactions.”
Ford stopped her there.
“Are you accusing these people of fraud?” he asked.
Couch said she was simply raising questions she thought the commission should be aware of. But Ford suggested she take them to the state attorney general, state auditor or another authority.
“We’re not the agency you should talk to,” he said.
After other citizens wrapped up their comments, Ford again encouraged CRC opponents to make their case elsewhere. If the region truly doesn’t want state funding to see the project happen, state lawmakers may very well be happy to spend the money in other places, he said.
The transportation commission plays a largely advisory role to state policymakers in Olympia. Leaders in both states will ultimately decide the fate of the CRC, Ford said, but Monday’s response showed a mixed reaction to the project in Southwest Washington.
“There clearly are a whole bunch of people that are still unhappy,” he said.
The commission spent the day at the Port of Vancouver getting up to speed on a busy slate of projects planned for Southwest Washington in the coming years.
Most of the big ones aren’t new to local residents — the CRC and its light rail component, the Salmon Creek interchange project, bus rapid transit and big rail investments at the Port of Vancouver, to name a few. Planners of those endeavors offered updates to the commission.
Monday’s session began with a series of often overlapping presentations — and for good reason, said Ford, of King County.
“Transportation is a system. It is not just disconnected pieces,” Ford said. “Tying them all together is critically important.”
The group typically holds meetings at various locations across Washington. The seven-member commission last met in Vancouver in 2004.
“We always look for local input,” said Commissioner Philip Parker, who lives in Clark County.
The CRC also came up several times during the early part of Monday’s meeting, with local officials mostly stressing the need to build the project. Clark County Commissioner Tom Mielke offered something of a dissenting voice early on, however, when he questioned the Vancouver benefit of the megaproject.
Clark County voters will have a chance to weigh in on at least part of the project when they consider a planned sales tax increase that would pay for the operation of light rail and bus rapid transit. Local leaders acknowledged that will be a challenge, but considered last week’s Proposition 1 vote at least something of a good indicator. Voters passed it convincingly, giving C-Tran a 0.2 percentage point bump to its sales tax rate to pay for bus service.
“It was a huge, huge step forward for C-Tran,” said C-Tran Executive Director Jeff Hamm. “We’re very humbled by that, and we’re going to do the best we can to deliver for voters.”
The commission will gather again at 9 a.m. Tuesday at Vancouver City Hall. The group will receive a more thorough update and tour of the CRC project area.