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New I-5 bridge may be issue in mayors race

Jefferson Smith is the only city candidate who will vote on project
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT State Rep. Jefferson Smith is the only candidate who can do something about replacing the Interstate Bridge by voting on the early funding for the project at the 2012 Oregon Legislature.

Portland mayoral candidates are split on the Columbia River Crossing.

State Rep. Jefferson Smith and former City Commissioner Charlie Hales oppose the more-than-$3 billion proposal, calling it too big and expensive. Community college student Max Brumm does not think it is even needed. New Seasons Market co-founder Eileen Brady wants the project to move forward, even though she thinks it will be modified along the way.

Only one candidate is in a position to do anything about the project, however. As a member of the Legislature, Smith will vote whether to begin funding the bridge plan during the session that begins on Feb. 1, 2012. The session will start 10 weeks before the May 15 primary election, giving Smith a chance to stand out on it.

The opportunity is not without political risks, though. The project is supported and opposed by powerful interest groups that include many Portland voters. Supporters include business owners and labor unions. Opponents include environmentalists and livability advocates.

'I get scared just thinking about it,' says Smith, a Democrat who represents Oregon House District 47. 'The safest political thing is to stay as far away as you're allowed to stay from the project.'

Despite the risks, Smith says he will vote against any funding for the current version of the project, which is estimated at between $3.1 billion and $3.5 billion, not counting pre-construction planning costs. Instead, he wants to see a smaller, less- expensive alternative.

Among other things, Smith says he would consider retrofitting the I-5 bridge as part of a project to seismically upgrade all bridges along the freeway and building a third bridge for local motor vehicle traffic, a new light-rail line and better pedestrian and bicycle access.

'I'm not going to vote for anything unless I see a path for getting to a project I can support,' says Smith.

Room for adjustments

Except for Brumm, all of the candidates for the mayor's job agree the Columbia River Crossing will address real and serious transportation problems. Smith and Hales do not believe the current proposal is realistic, with Hales calling it a 'shelf study' that will never be built. Brady says work should proceed quickly on the project, however, saying it is needed to address seismic, safety, freight mobility and economic issues.

'There's plenty of room for adjustments, but we need to get on with it,' Brady says.

The proposed project covers a five-mile stretch of Interstate 5 between Oregon and Washington that includes the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River and seven freeway interchanges. The stretch is heavily congested during morning and evening rush hours, delaying both commuters and freight traffic. Much of the congestion is related to the current six-lane bridge, which is the only draw bridge on I-5 and must occasionally be lifted for river traffic. The bridge also has no shoulders for disabled vehicles, meaning that even small accidents or stalled vehicles can snarl traffic for miles.

Many accidents also occur at the freeway interchanges, which are much closer together than current federal standards, causing some drivers to make abrupt and unsafe lane changes. Large trucks coming and going from the Port of Portland and the Port of Vancouver also have trouble on the substandard ramps.

The current proposal calls for a replacement bridge with up to 10 lanes, counting auxiliary lanes that turn into ramps. It would also carry a new light-rail line between Portland and Vancouver, along with much wider and safer paths for pedestrians and bicyclists.

All of the interchanges would be reworked, including those that serve Hayden Island, which would also get a new bridge for motor vehicle, light rail, pedestrian and bicycle traffic to the Expo Center.

A mix of federal funds, state funds and bond measures supported by tolls imposed on those crossing the bridge will fund the project.

Business groups like the Columbia Corridor Association support the new bridge. Its members believe the bridge will speed freight traffic between the two states and along both sides of the river.

'Businesses need certainty when it comes to pickups and deliveries,' says Executive Director Corky Collier.

Labor unions also support the project, especially those in the construction trades, which are suffering from high recession-related unemployment.

But the project is opposed by environmental and livability groups that believe it will result in more traffic between the two states, increasing greenhouse gas emissions above current levels and encouraging more suburban development in Clark County.

Opponents include the Coalition for a Livable Future, an umbrella organization representing more than 100 organizations and people, which says, 'As conceived, it will increase global warming pollution, harm people's health, and undermine our region's vision of a sustainable economy.'

Both sides are expected to press their position at the 2012 Oregon Legislature.

Raising questions

Lawmakers in Oregon and Washington have not yet had to vote on the project. Transportation departments in both states have spent $147 million planning the project, using available funds that include federal dollars. But according to CRC staff, the legislatures must approve millions to buy at least some of the properties needed for the project in 2012 for it to stay on schedule.

Although there was no vote on the Columbia River Crossing during the 2011 Oregon Legislature, questions were raised anyway about the project. Twenty state representatives from both parties signed a letter to the members of the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development Committee last March, asking for information on many aspects of the project, including projected interest costs, traffic projections used by project staff, tolling estimates and potential cost overruns.

Portland-area state Rep. Mary Nolan signed the letter. She is running against City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who voted against a 2008 City Council resolution to move forward with the project if certain conditions were met.

One signer, former state Rep. Ben Cannon, has since resigned to take the job as Gov. John Kitzhaber's top education adviser.

Smith did not sign the letter, however, meaning that at least 20 of the 60 Oregon House members have serious questions about the project - just 10 short of the 30 votes needed to block funding.

With four months to go before the start of the 2012 Oregon Legislative session, project staff and supporters show no interest in considering a smaller, less expensive project that might weaken the opposition. The final environmental impact statement for the current version was submitted to the federal government for approval just last week.

A decision on the project by the federal government is expected by December.