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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: GOP Letter to Inslee Unwise

Opening dialogue with Oregon on bridge with ‘no’ hardly good-faith negotiating

The Columbian
Published: January 6, 2019, 6:03am

A recent letter from several elected Republicans to Gov. Jay Inslee regarding efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge raises some good points, but also calls into question the sincerity of those who signed it.

In taking a pre-emptive shot at any mention of light rail being included in discussions about a new bridge, the officials have hinted that they would prefer no bridge rather than one extending Portland’s light-rail system into Clark County. “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” wrote U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, along with legislators Lynda Wilson, Paul Harris, Ann Rivers, Brandon Vick and three lawmakers from the 20th District.

In the process, the lawmakers highlight the need for a Clark County consensus regarding the bridge. Indeed, it would be foolish to repeat the history of the Columbia River Crossing, which took more than a decade of planning and nearly $200 million in expenditures before being scuttled by the Legislature. But it is equally foolish to begin throwing dirt on a newborn process.

At issue is Gov. Inslee’s recommendation that the Legislature approve the opening of a planning office for the project, and that organizers should assume that light rail will be part of any eventual proposal. The Republicans urge Inslee to remain open to alternative forms of mass transit and note that Clark County voters have rejected ballot measures related to light rail in 1995, 2012 and 2013. “We owe it to those we serve to represent their preferences in negotiations over any future I-5 bridge project,” the letter reads.

This is a valid point, but in immediately opting for intransigence, the lawmakers have ignored Inslee’s explanation for specifying light rail as a preference. One reason is that Oregon officials need to believe Washington is sincere about moving forward on the project. It was the Washington Legislature that in 2013 scuttled a decade of planning, and leaders on the other side of the Columbia River are understandably gun-shy about engaging in negotiations. Fool me once, and all that. Another reason is that, without genuine progress in restarting the process, both states will soon need to begin repaying the federal government for the previous expenses.

Inslee has stressed that he is open to ideas regarding transit across the bridge, and local representatives would better serve their constituents by taking him at his word and offering alternatives rather than immediately reacting with criticism.

Naysayers will point out that Oregon officials are equally obstinate in their insistence that light rail be included on the bridge. This is true, but whataboutism will not move the process forward. Washington representatives can only control how we approach the issue, come to the table with open minds, and then hope that Oregon officials do the same. The mistrust that has marked previous efforts must be replaced by sincere efforts to address the region’s most pressing economic issue.

Because of that, the letter sent to Inslee is counterproductive. It signals to Oregon leaders and to the federal government that Clark County is still divided by the conflict that killed the Columbia River Crossing five years ago, and it leads to doubt about this area’s sincerity in addressing the stifling congestion of I-5.

Rather than reflexively pointing out what they see as problems with the governor’s approach, local representatives should embrace the opportunity to discuss the issue. “Let’s talk” is a more productive response than “no.”