It was all smiles when the second incarnation of the Columbia River Crossing project got off the ground nearly one year ago. But now that key decisions need to be made, the high stakes are causing anxiety among some powerful stakeholders.
At the Executive Steering Group (ESG) meeting of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (a misleading name given that the project will impact a five-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver) on Wednesday, members discussed the draft “Purpose and Need” and “Vision and Values” documents.
At issue is the need to finalize these critical, federally-mandated documents that will set in stone the parameters of future design alternatives. These statements will be part of documents required for federal funding and the all-important National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process.
Given the importance of these statements, elected officials on the ESG, department of transportation staff from Oregon and Washington, and project consultants are in a delicate dance where timelines loom and potentially controversial decisions need to be made.
NEPA documents are difficult enough. But the IBR Program has the unique challenge of being an extension of the CRC, a project that was eight years in the making and cost Oregon and Washington taxpayers around $200 million to plan before it failed calamitously in 2013.
IBR Program staff want to get in line for an expected gold rush of federal infrastructure funding, and they must decide which parts of past CRC planning work to copy/paste and which parts to delete. They want the final draft of the Purpose and Need to be completed by May for presentation to both state legislatures.
Not surprisingly, the combination of a fast timeline and a concern that the new project sounds too much like the old one is making politicians very nervous.
At the outset of Wednesday’s meeting, project administrator Greg Johnson was forced to address a staff meeting on Tuesday where he said things got a bit heated. “We are not trying to railroad anyone as has been said,” he shared, “We’re trying to run a program that has some very real dates going on into the future. We’re trying to meet those dates and bring in community engagement to make sure that we are moving the program forward in a reasonable way.”
“We know that we have some differing opinions on what the Purpose and Need should address… So we are working on those issues. We do not have a set language that we’re going to pull out of our back pocket and move forward.”
As for that heated staff meeting? Johnson tried to calm the waters. “Tensions ran a little high in the staff level meeting. Understood,” Johnson said. “… Folks are free to voice their concerns… But folks are not free to walk away from the problem. We have to have everyone’s input as we move this forward. So I just want to make sure and re-center us.”
Johnson and other IBR Program staff will use some of the language and planning work from the CRC. “The 2011 I-5 Columbia River Crossing Record of Decision still remains valid, and the IBR program will utilize and update past work to support efficient decision making, while reflecting current community priorities and changes since the previous planning effort concluded,” states the current draft Purpose and Need.
The CRC is toxic politically, so it’s understandable elected officials want as much distance from it as possible.
For context, the CRC’s 14-page Purpose and Need statement from 2011 makes zero mention of climate change or equity.
City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty represents Portland on the ESG. In a statement she read at Wednesday’s meeting, she said, “Climate and equity are two of the most urgent needs of our time. And I would still like to see these centered with the Purpose and Need for this project… Relying on the same framework as the CRC is not serving us well today.”
In reply, Johnson sought to reassure Hardesty. “There are some things that have yet to be done, that I think will address a lot of your concerns,” he said. “As you are aware, $200 million dollars was spent on the CRC… We aren’t framing it from that, but it’s something that we have to make sure that we walk through, and that all of those questions that were asked and answered are being answered in this [new] document.”
Metro Council President Lynn Peterson expressed similar concerns to ones she shared back in January: That the process needs to slow down and make a cleaner break from the CRC.
“The amount of of quick turnaround that’s happening is too quick in order to be able to get to our councils,” she said. “We’ll all work as hard as we can towards [a decision in] May. But we currently are not even on the [Metro Council] agenda until the end of May.”
Peterson also echoed Hardesty’s concerns: “We’re getting to the point where it’s starting to sound like the old way of doing business, and I don’t want to slide into that. And that is putting pitting values against values and modes against modes.”
Peterson — who must balance wide-ranging transportation perspectives from five different counties — urged project staff and ESG members to be cautious. Her comments at the end the meeting were a personal appeal for unity and a warning about the perils of moving forward without consensus:
“We need to find a balance between how fast we run, and what potential funding sources are out there. Because last time, we had $750 million in hand. And we lost it because we didn’t have the consensus, because we rushed it. And so this balance that we’re all walking is a tight-rope. And I think we all need to just acknowledge we’re all on a tightrope together and one of us makes a move and there’s going to be… there’s going to be a massive [someone in the meeting flailed their arms as if they were falling]… I just know I’m not good on a tightrope. So let’s resolve to holding hands together.”
The ESG plans to finalize the Purpose and Need and related documents at their May 19th meeting.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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