For a project that was declared dead some three months ago, the Columbia River Crossing showed a lot of life last week. On Thursday, the C-Tran board of directors approved a financing plan for the operation and maintenance of a proposed light-rail system over a proposed new Interstate 5 bridge. On Friday, the U.S. Coast Guard granted a bridge permit that was crucial to moving the project forward.
The developments were far from the defibrillator needed to fully revive the CRC — other steps must be approved — but there is reason for hope among supporters of the project. There also is reason for consternation on the part of detractors.
“I hardly know what to say,” Clark County Commissioner and C-Tran board member David Madore said before the light-rail plan passed by a 5-4 vote. “This is about the most stupid thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Big decisions of this magnitude, this is not the way you make them.”
On several fronts, we agree with Madore, although his assertion would carry more weight had he shown due diligence in hiring the county’s director of environmental services. The C-Tran financing plan was hastily put together and, as governments frequently prove, haste makes waste. The specific language of the resolution was not made public prior to the meeting. In addition, the board rejected a motion put forth by Madore that any financing plan go to voters for approval.
Last November, voters rejected a proposed sales-tax increase that would have financed C-Tran’s operation of Portland’s light-rail extension into Clark County as well as a Bus Rapid Transit project along the Fourth Plain corridor. The measure, which would have raised the sales tax within C-Tran’s service district by 0.1 percent, received about 43.5 percent of the vote.
That defeat left C-Tran scrambling to fund light-rail operations, and it led to a simple question: Why wasn’t this figured out long ago? The CRC has been in development for a decade or so, and the final proposal has been in place for years. For the C-Tran board to examine local options for funding after the project was apparently killed in the Washington State Senate, and then hastily ram through a financial package, is unconscionable.
The financing plan approved by the board will use savings from a reduction of bus trips across the I-5 Bridge in addition to sales-tax revenue from CRC-related construction, leaving open the question of what that money would be used for if it weren’t going toward light rail. It also leaves a hole in the funding, as the plan has a $400,000 annual gap to be filled by an undetermined “third party” source. C-Tran’s Executive Director-CEO Jeff Hamm said that shortfall would be covered jointly by C-Tran and TriMet, Portland’s transit system, if no other funding sources are identified. Given the track record of this project, we’ll assume that’s what will happen.
Yet while the plan approved by the C-Tran board seems to generate more questions than it answers, it does move a much-needed project forward. Any multibillion-dollar project involving two states, a river, multiple regional governments, and multiple transportation entities is bound to have warts, and the CRC process at times has been particularly unsightly. Yet it is the result of more than a decade of work by countless people, and it is the result of input from many sectors.
The C-Tran decision might be a halting, stumbling kind of step, but it is a step in the right direction. Sometimes, progress is progress, no matter how clumsy it might appear.