Die-hard detractors of the Columbia River Crossing might want to take this sitting down: Even in death, the politically discordant Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project that included light rail into Vancouver is helping rearrange the city’s future development.
What’s more, the new arrangement will leave room for the CRC, or something like it, to make a comeback.
You could be forgiven for missing the latest chessboard moves. For starters, look no further than the Port of Vancouver, which backed the failed CRC as an essential reliever of traffic congestion and mover of freight.
As the port has systematically drawn up a plan for redeveloping 10 acres of its Terminal 1 waterfront property — which includes the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay, perched west of the I-5 entrance into Vancouver — port leaders have cited the drawing-board collapse of the $3 billion CRC as a spur to fill up their property.
While the CRC was in play, state transportation planners had earmarked the Red Lion site as a full, permanent property acquisition to help make way for the new two-state crossing. However, last year’s annulment of the megaproject ended that idea.
“We were holding that property down there as possible construction laydown space, and there were other factors regarding that bridge that gave some uncertainty to the site,” Katy Brooks, the port’s director of economic development, told port commissioners during a recent public meeting. “We’ve decided to move on.”
The CRC’s demise became a factor in the port’s decision to rejuvenate its Terminal 1 property into a mix of residential, commercial and open spaces. Does that mean that the port, a staunch backer of the CRC project, is blocking the way for a future bridge?
The port says the answer is no. Its commissioners postponed an expected Tuesday vote on a preferred master plan for the Terminal 1 site, allowing more time for review. The site is expected to include a new hotel to replace the Red Lion, set for closure on Oct. 31.
Brooks described the CRC as being “put on hold, a hiatus for who knows how long.” And, she said, “we’re working closely” with state transportation officials “to make sure whatever we build down there is conducive to whatever bridge” is built in the future.
So while no map will show a future bridge alignment, a clear path for a new bridge will exist if some future decision-makers decide to tackle the bottleneck that is Interstate 5 through Vancouver and North Portland.
Last week, port spokeswoman Magan Reed reiterated the port’s support for a new I-5 bridge. With the Columbia River Crossing being “indefinitely on hold, and plans for the entire Terminal 1 property moving forward, the port will continue to work with (the state Department of Transportation) to accommodate future bridge construction,” she said in an email to The Columbian.
Because the port and state transportation officials are on the same page, Reed said, “the port is not concerned that redeveloping Terminal 1 will add to the cost of building a future bridge.”
‘There’s no discussion’
Before its demise, the CRC’s shadow loomed large over the Terminal 1 area and other properties that sat within the project’s sprawling footprint. The plan would have replaced the I-5 Bridge, brought light rail to Vancouver and rebuilt freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River.
The new bridge wouldn’t have followed the same alignment as the existing I-5 Bridge. Rather, the new span would have curved downstream in a design that pushed the freeway farther west — and right over the site that now houses the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay.
The hotel and adjacent parking lot occupy three separate properties just west of I-5. All three parcels are owned by the Port of Vancouver. And all three were listed as a “permanent full acquisition” in CRC plans, meaning the site would have been purchased and likely cleared.
“The structure that is there now, it would have been demolished to make room for construction staging as well as the bridge itself,” said Kris Strickler, the CRC’s final project director before it shut down last year.
As it turned out, the Red Lion’s days were numbered whether the CRC was built or not. Likewise with the Centennial Center, a banquet hall that was built next to the hotel in 1962, which was demolished earlier this year to allow for the extension of Columbia Way.
CRC officials met regularly with the port while the project was moving forward, said Strickler, now the regional administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation. The port was fully aware — and supportive — of the CRC, he said, and WSDOT knew about the port’s plans to develop Terminal 1. CRC-related conversations ended when the project did, he said. The effort folded for good last year with eroding political support and, ultimately, no funding.
“We don’t have a project at this point,” Strickler said of the CRC. “There’s no discussion.”
Though the CRC’s footprint would have swallowed up some of the port’s land had it been built, it’s possible that some of it would have reverted back after construction was complete, Strickler said.
While the CRC’s proposed path would have crossed Terminal 1 to the west of the current bridge, that was only one of “dozens” of alignments that were considered earlier in the process, Strickler said.
Could a different bridge alignment emerge in the future? That’s tough to say.
“That is the $2.9 billion question,” Strickler said.
‘Still a problem’
The Columbia River Economic Development Council — the nonprofit, Vancouver-based promoter of jobs and recruiter of businesses — included building the Columbia River Crossing among its list of priorities.
Mike Bomar, president of the development council, said the CRC — known in planner jargon as the locally preferred alternative (although opponents would likely prefer to call it by other names) — “is a failed item in our strategic plan.”
Be that as it may, Bomar said, the development council still supports improving the bridge crossing. The group also backs efforts to leave room for such a project, he said, as other agencies, including the port, move on and give shape to other economic-development initiatives.
Interstate 5 congestion is an increasing hindrance “when it comes to businesses and business growth in Southwest Washington,” Bomar said. “The problem is still a problem.”
The Port of Vancouver’s support for the Columbia River Crossing goes back to 2008. That’s when the port’s three-member board voted on two separate resolutions concerning the project. In January of that year, commissioners voted in support of replacing the existing I-5 Bridge and making interchange improvements, in part, to “ensure efficient freight access to and from the interstate system.”
The board’s second vote, about five months later, gave the port’s blessing to light rail. But Washington’s Legislature failed to provide funding to match commitments from the federal government and the state of Oregon, leaving backed-up commuters with plenty of time to enjoy the river views to and from work.