CRC Still Dangling by a Thread

Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler advanced non-binding report language to condition Coast Guard approval of the Columbia River Crossing project, as both supporters and opponents try to push their point of view.The Washington legislature is in overtime. Governor Inslee has made transportation funding a go-home vote. Columbia River Crossing officials are working on mitigation deals with major employers impacted by a new I-5 bridge. But the verdict remains in doubt whether the bridge project will survive.

Bridge backers staged a rally in Olympia, ran radio spots and conducted phone banks to generate grassroots support. Inslee arguably made his most serious plea for a 10-cent gas tax increase to pay, in part, for major projects, including the CRC. A broad coalition of business, labor and civic leaders have pleaded for support in one-on-one meetings with key Washington state senators who hold the key to any funding this session.

Despite all that, the future of CRC is still a roll of the dice.

The Oregon legislature acted earlier in its 2013 session to approve $450 million for the CRC. Now it is Washington's turn to approve an equal share or risk losing earmarked federal funds for the project, including extension of light rail from Portland to Vancouver.

While proponents have been busy, so have opponents. GOP Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, who represents Southwest Washington, used her leverage as a member of the House Appropriations Committee to insert report language urging the Coast Guard to submit a report on the economic impact of the CRC on river users before issuing a permit for the project.

Citing pending mitigation deals with manufacturers Greenberry and Oregon Iron Works, Beutler said, "We deserve to know what will happen to those jobs once the deals are signed. If the CRC can't provide assurances that those businesses' jobs will stay in the region, then the Coast Guard should not permit the project."

In another odd twist, Republican state Senator Don Benton, who represents a Vancouver district and is a staunch opponent of the CRC if it includes light rail, was hired as Clark County's environmental services director. The hiring has drawn criticism because it bypassed normal recruitment processes and was orchestrated by two Clark County commissioners who also oppose the CRC and light rail. Benton's professional background is in insurance and as a marketing consultant. Benton told friends on his Facebook page he looked forward to the challenge and didn't see the job as a conflict with his duties as a state senator.

The C-Tran board of directors exemplified the doubt surrounding the big-stakes project as it demurred this week on deciding whether to assume responsibility to operate and maintain light rail if extended to Vancouver. As Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a CRC supporter, said, "Why put this burden on our shoulders if the project doesn't move forward?"

The CRC has had more than its share of twists and turns. But the final turn of the screw may be just days away.