Our Opinion

We agree with Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio that $4 billion is an unaffordable price tag at this time to improve the Columbia River Crossing.

DeFazio - one of the most powerful Congressional transportation leaders - has for many months told planners and Portland-area elected officials to scale back the project and its price. That effort is under way as planners separate components of the project, which, if built, would include a replacement Interstate 5 bridge, light rail to Vancouver and numerous costly interchange improvements in Oregon and Washington.

In Portland this week, DeFazio told the Tribune that the Columbia River Crossing project, as conceived, is the 'optimal' approach, but he quickly adds, 'We can't afford that.'

We agree. But we also fear that such a conclusion leaves the Portland region, including the city of Vancouver, Wash., and Clark County, in a very difficult position.

DeFazio is correct in saying that elements of the plan will either need to be dropped, delayed for many years or added later in phases. Making such choices risks the most essential outcome of the crossing project: improving a bridge built in 1918 that today is a congested transportation, economic and livability bottleneck.

No agreement in sight

This project is already extraordinarily controversial. Land-use advocates fear that a new bridge would be a conduit for rampant urban sprawl in Clark County. Others have criticized tolling - which could be used to raise revenue, manage congestion and reduce auto trips - as unfair.

Opponents of light rail in Clark County oppose the concept of bringing TriMet's MAX system across the bridge. Some environmental advocates say the project would increase - not reduce - greenhouse gases.

Disagreement has risen to such levels that the Columbia River Crossing debate is likely to influence who is elected Vancouver mayor in a few weeks and who will be elected in 2010 to lead Metro.

Yet DeFazio is convinced that 'unanimity will have to come from the region itself' - or the project won't receive federal support.

We believe such agreement is perilously in doubt. Too many singular objections, special interest objectives and, most distressingly, a lack of trust and confidence in compromise and phased solutions, will keep regional agreement from occurring on its own.

Along the way, the region's elected leadership has not made resolution of the Columbia River Crossing project its top infrastructure priority. That leaves it to others to lead this revised project forward.

Only governors can get it done

Don't expect the needed Columbia Crossing leadership to come from DeFazio or others in Congress. While DeFazio says tolling is a financial requirement and that the project is essential for the national and regional economy, he won't dictate a solution.

If the region cannot settle this matter - nor Congress - who is left to achieve compromise and agreement? We think the governors of Oregon and Washington are the only such leaders. Given the enormous impact this project has on the economy and livability of both states, the Columbia River Crossing is a matter of statewide significance requiring their immediate and ongoing engagement.

DeFazio, who for years has been touted as a future candidate for governor, is skeptical that either Oregon's Ted Kulongoski or Washington's Christine Gregoire will 'tell the region what to do.'

We don't see it as a case of 'telling or dictating.' Rather, the governors are required to gather and lead people - to build confidence that we can achieve positive outcomes in phased steps. Their roles also require them to improve not only regional livability, but also the economies of two states and the entire West Coast.

That's leadership. And that is now what's either missing, distracted or in short supply.

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