The Columbia River Crossing is dead.
After intense political wrangling, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent, and a controversy that embroiled Clark County for the better part of a decade, the Washington Senate delivered the fatal blow to the beleaguered project Saturday. Lawmakers there turned back a last-ditch effort to push through a transportation revenue package that would have steered crucial funding to the CRC and other projects across the state. The full Legislature’s adjournment without approving that money left the planned Interstate 5 Bridge replacement with an aggressive schedule and a $3.4 billion finance plan ready to fall apart.
Instead, both states’ governors said Saturday that they’d pull the plug. The project’s downtown Vancouver office will begin shutting down. Its dozens of employees and consultants will land elsewhere. Funding that Oregon lawmakers had already committed will evaporate. And Clark County will move on to life after the CRC.
Gov. Jay Inslee will meet with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and transportation officials to decide next steps, said Inslee spokesman David Postman. But the assumption all along was that the project would fold if Washington lawmakers made no commitment this year, he said.
“We’re now looking at what that means and exactly how that’s going to proceed,” Postman said.
Kitzhaber confirmed the CRC’s demise in a statement expressing disappointment Saturday. The failure of Washington lawmakers doesn’t eliminate the safety and economic risks on the existing Interstate 5 Bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland, he said.
“But without the funds from Washington and adherence to the project budget and schedule, neither state can incur the further costs of delay,” Kitzhaber said. “Consequently, project managers have begun to close down the project.”
The development is a major political defeat for Inslee, Kitzhaber and other high-profile forces that had lobbied hard for the CRC in recent months. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was among those leading the charge. Then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited Olympia in the session to put additional pressure on lawmakers to act.
CRC planners had banked on Washington and Oregon to jointly contribute $900 million to the project’s $3.4 billion cost. Oregon lawmakers approved their state’s $450 million share this year. House Democrats in Olympia passed a $10 billion transportation revenue package and project list that would have committed another $450 million from Washington.
But Senate Republicans had long indicated they weren’t keen on the package, which included a 10 1/2 cent increase to the state gas tax. Plenty of members singled out the many financial and logistical questions surrounding the CRC, which would have extended light rail into Vancouver and rebuilt freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River.
Ultimately, the Senate didn’t act on either the transportation package or CRC funding before the final gavel dropped. After adjournment, a clearly frustrated Inslee laid blame squarely at the feet of the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus, made up of mostly Republicans. He called the result a “total failure.”
“Where have you been for the past six months? Has anyone here heard leadership from the Senate majority caucus?” Inslee said on live television. “I think not, and that’s very regrettable.”
He later added: “This was supposed to be a bipartisan majority. But it has turned into nothing but a roadblock to a transportation package.”
Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, expressed disappointment that senators received the House’s transportation package on what ended up being the 151st day of a 153-day legislative session. And Rivers noted that the House failed to pass a required bonding authority bill as part of the package.
It’s not clear the House even had the votes to pass the bonding authority bill, which would require a three-fifths majority. Earlier components of the transportation package scraped by on slim majorities, and only after an unsuccessful first attempt.
Rivers said Senate leaders plan to meet with constituents in the coming months to decide the best way to proceed with the state’s transportation needs, including the I-5 corridor. “Bring folks in on the front end instead of the back end,” she said.
As for the death of the CRC, “I take neither joy nor pleasure,” said Rivers, who opposed the CRC as planned. “It’s heartbreaking that it got as far as it did with such questionable results.”
The CRC had become a lightning rod of controversy in Clark County, particularly the light-rail component local leaders approved in 2008. Opponents also decried the CRC’s cost and plans to toll the new I-5 bridge, saying it put an undue financial burden on the Southwest Washington residents who account for the majority of traffic over the bridge.
Supporters called the CRC an essential fix for an aging bridge that’s an economic and safety liability. The twin spans of the I-5 bridge were built in 1917 and 1958. Both are considered “functionally obsolete” by state transportation officials.
The CRC had friends in high places, but it was a series of high-profile blunders that ultimately helped facilitate the project’s undoing. The CRC went through multiple bridge designs, multiple delays and multiple project directors over the years.
All of that led to perhaps the project’s most embarrassing misstep: designing a bridge too low. Planners initially drew up a fixed span with just 95 feet of clearance over the Columbia — a height roundly dismissed by the U.S. Coast Guard and others as inadequate for the navigation and economic needs of river users.
Planners scrambled to come up with a 116-foot-high design late last year and applied to the Coast Guard in January for a bridge permit — even as mitigation talks continued with upriver businesses that would have taken a financial hit due to the bridge design. Negotiations centered around how much the CRC would pay them as compensation.
“In the private sector, if this had happened, there would be no forgiveness of the companies that did this,” Rivers said of the CRC’s blunders.
Local players react
Local reaction to news of the CRC’s death varied. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a strong supporter of the project, called the outcome “politics at its worst.”
“It’s hard to find diplomatic words to describe the disappointment at what is really the failure of leadership in the legislature — by some of our representatives — to invest in the future economy and safety of the roads and bridges in our state,” Leavitt said. “Of course, it’s not just the CRC project that comes to a halt, but all the other important projects around the state that other communities were hoping would be completed, addressing the challenges they face in their local economies.”
Leavitt continued: “Sadly, that’s politics. This is unfortunately a poster child of poor politics.”
Clark County Commissioner David Madore became a key voice galvanizing opposition to the CRC in the later stages of the debate. Reached late Saturday, Madore welcomed the news — and reiterated his call for a third bridge over the Columbia River at 192nd Avenue.
“Many people worked very hard to defend this community from being exploited, and we owe them a debt of gratitude,” he said. “Our state legislature, our senators and many local citizens that worked so hard and conducted themselves with honor are very thankful to see the outcome.”
If there’s one thing to learn from the CRC, Madore said, “it’s how not to build a bridge and force a project upon the community.”
It’s unclear what will become of the ongoing efforts surrounding the CRC. The Coast Guard is still reviewing the project’s bridge permit application, and CRC leaders had been engaged in mitigation talks with upriver business as recently as last week. C-Tran, a local partner in the project, has spent recent months discussing how to pay the local cost of operating light rail in Vancouver.
In all, the project spent more than $170 million in planning.
The Columbia River Crossing project office officially formed in 2005. Its leaders had hoped to begin construction in 2014.