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River crossing requires leaders

Our Opinion

It's time for Oregon's congressional delegation and governor to bring more hands-on leadership to the proposed $4.1 billion Columbia River Crossing project.

We agree with The Oregonian editorial board, which two weeks ago generally advocated for such leadership. But rather than calling for general support, we think Gov. Ted Kulongoski, U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer, David Wu, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader and U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley must assume responsibility and leadership roles on this important regional public works project.

Their leadership is urgently needed - and not just because of brickbats thrown by project opponents who mischaracterize it as simply a new Interstate 5 bridge. The critics fail to mention that a new bridge will include a light-rail component, pedestrian and bicycle paths and other important features for the public.

Instead, leadership and leverage are required to ensure that Oregonians and the nation will understand - and support - how the Columbia River Crossing will better link Oregon and Washington, and how it will improve the transportation, safety, livability and economy of Portland and the entire West Coast.

Washington state does its part

Frankly, the state of Washington is getting this kind of leadership from at least two of its elected officials: Gov. Chris Gregoire and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.

Things are different in Oregon, where we hear occasional strong statements from the governor and less frequent and seemingly restrained comments from our congressional leaders.

This must change. For one, Portland Mayor Sam Adams struggles to restore his own leadership credibility. For another, the national recession has elevated the difficulty and pressure in setting state and federal funding priorities. And, for a third, citizens need the people they elected to say clearly and convincingly why this project matters.

Why haven't congressional leaders done more? Certainly, the project's price tag makes some nervous. We are also confident that state and national leaders would prefer that Portland and Vancouver conveniently decide specifics of the Columbia River Crossing on their own.

For Democrats, the concerns offered by some members of the environmental community are an obstacle.

Each leader has a role

But along the way, we think Oregon's reluctant leaders are forgetting what's important. This is not a simply a regional matter. It is an issue of state and national importance. That's why Kulongoski should immediately take the lead with Gregoire in pushing forward the full scope and details of this project.

Blumenauer, who has the least to lose politically, should serve as a 'bridge' to those who oppose the project. (His seat in a heavily Democratic district is guaranteed for life.) He can serve as a facilitator to bring people together to accomplish balanced transportation, economic and environmental outcomes.

Wyden must join Murray in ensuring that Congress and the Obama administration understand that the crossing is not just a bridge project, or a freeway or a light-rail line, but a total integrated system. It's time for Wyden to use some of his political capital in a dominant fashion on infrastructure investments.

Wu, Schrader and Merkley should find out what transportation strongman DeFazio needs in Congress to ensure that these investments move forward. They also must work together to demonstrate to Oregonians outside of Portland that the Columbia River Crossing matters to the entire state.

In the past, Oregon was blessed with the leadership of former U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield, who almost singlehandedly got things done. Hatfield did not hesitate. He led, he brought diverse people together, he communicated and he eventually did the right thing.

It's time for Oregon's elected leaders to use their collective power in a more robust manner - just as Mark Hatfield would have done.