As legislators hold hearing on CRC, some are already looking at cheaper plans

A 2011 rendering of the proposed
Columbia River Crossing.

Two veteran state legislators, one of whom was a key swing vote in support of last year’s Columbia River Crossing funding plan, say consensus is building for scrapping the freeway-rail expansion plan and starting over.

Both said they doubt their colleagues will re-approve the existing proposal, though a public committee hearing Wednesday afternoon is likely to advance the debate.

State Rep. Mitch Greenlick and state Rep. Lew Frederick — neither of whom have conferred on the issue — both said Tuesday that a new, much smaller truck-and-train freight bridge would solve the key problems facing the river crossing with far lower costs.

Rep. Mitch Greenlick
(D-NW Portland)

“I’m not saying don’t replace the bridge,” said Greenlick (D-Northwest Portland), whose amendment last year, withholding Oregon funding unless Washington’s legislature also approved the freeway plan, turned out to be pivotal. “I’m saying find a new way to do that.”

Both legislators, however, noted that they have no idea “what the heck’s going to happen,” as Greenlick put it, at tomorrow’s hearing in the House Transportation and Economic Development.

The governors of Oregon and Washington declared the project dead last summer after it failed to pass the Washington state senate. But Gov. John Kitzhaber later revived a slightly cheaper version of the freeway plan with a proposal for Oregon to handle the entire project, including the use of eminent domain to acquire property near the Washington bridge landing and the collection of $50 million a year in tolls, mostly from Washington residents.

State Rep. Lew Frederick (D-NE Portland)
(Photo: Portland Public Schools)

Frederick (D-Northeast Portland), who gave a passionate floor speech against the freeway plan when it passed last year, said Tuesday that events since then have moved many of his colleagues toward his camp.

“A lot of things were promised in the last session regarding the CRC, and many of those things simply did not pan out,” Frederick said. “We’ve also seen revelations about the potential backup of tolling on 205. And of course since that time we’ve had the Washington state legislature say no. … All of those things for me indicate that there’s not even the grudging support, in some cases, for some of my colleagues.”

The bridge’s loudest supporters, however, are two of the most powerful politicians in Oregon: House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-North Portland), head of the House Democratic caucus, and Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Two weeks ago, The Oregonian reported that state Senate President Peter Courtney had “backed away” from supporting an Oregon-only project.

Frederick said Tuesday that the coalitions for and against the freeway-rail project are hard to describe.

“People would like to put it into a particular model that they know, the Republican/Democrat model — that doesn’t hold up,” he said. “There are some business groups that are very very supportive and there are a few who are not, and there are unions who are supportive and there are a few who are not.”

For his part, Greenlick said the freeway plan never made much sense to him, though he reluctantly supported it last year.

“My objection to it all along was there were far better options that were cheaper,” he said. “It got past the point of no return.”

If Kitzhaber and Kotek’s Oregon-only plan fails, Greenlick said, the legislature should act quickly to find a better plan.

“I think we immediately need to start looking for a new way to do it,” he said, suggesting a truck-pedestrian-rail bridge, including a bike connection, as a cheap way to take pressure off the existing spans. “That would be a much cheaper option and then if one of those two bridges failed, then you’d have a way to deal with it.”

Frederick said he thinks a local freight bridge to Hayden island is the ticket adding that replacing the downstream railroad bridge would also reduce I-5 bridge lifts by making it easier for large ships to keep a straight course down the Columbia.

“Everyone realizes that any sort of bridge is going to be disruptive,” Frederick said. “The question is what is going to be the benefit.”

Frederick predicted that tomorrow’s hearing will have “rather energetic conversations,” and it’s far from clear where things are headed. Opponents of the freeway project, including Plaid Pantry economist Joe Cortright, 1000 Friends of Oregon and Oregon Walks, will be testifying in opposition. You can get details about the hearing, contact committee members and track the event live from the committee’s page on the legislature’s website.

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