Governors resolve to build bridge

Kitzhaber, Gregoire say debate is over, now is time to act
by: JAIME VALDEZ Governors John Kitzhaber and Chris Gregoire announced Monday that the new Interstate 5 bridge will be a composite-deck truss structure that will break ground in 2013.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire stole the show from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber at Monday's press conference on the controversial Columbia River Crossing.

The press conference was held at the Red Lion on the River/Jantzen Beach to announce that both governors had decided to replace the existing Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., with a composite-truss deck design. The event was attended by a standing-room-only crowd of regional elected officials, business leaders and labor figures.

A lingering cold left Gregoire hoarse, but she sparked enthusiastic and prolonged applause when she declared the decision was much more than a choice between bridge designs. As Gregoire saw it, she and Kitzhaber had decided to end the ongoing debate about the project and get on with it.

'Now is the time, today is the day. We've made the decision and it's time to move forward,' Gregoire declared.

Gregoire noted that she's done the same thing on two controversial Washington transportation projects: the replacement of the aging Evergreen Point Floating Bridge between Seattle and Bellevue and the decision to replace the earthquake-damaged Alaska Way Viaduct along the Seattle Harbor with a tunnel. Decisions on both projects had dragged on for years before Gregoire stepped in and made them.

'Sometimes, somebody just has to make a decision,' Gregoire said to applause.

Still some opposition

Although some CRC opponents say the estimated $3.6 billion price tag is too high, such figures do not scare Gregoire. The replacement floating bridge project is budgeted at $4.65 billion, while the proposed tunnel is part of a larger $4.25 billion project. Both will be partly funded with tolls, another controversial element of the Columbia River Crossing project that Gregoire approved.

Although Kitzhaber agreed it was time for the project to move forward, he spent much of his time thanking critics and opponents for their input. Among others, he singled out Mayor Sam Adams, who favors a more ornate cable-stay design, and economist Joe Cortright, who argues the project could ultimate cost $10 billion or more.

But Kitzhaber also made it clear that preliminary environmental work must be completed this year for the project to qualify for $1.3 billion in federal funds. According to both governors, if the deadline is missed, Oregon and Washington residents will make up the difference. Both states are projected to fund a third of the project, with tolls making up the final third.

The project is intended to reduce congestion and improve safety in a five-mile stretch of I-5 that includes the bridge and several freeway interchanges that do not meet federal standards. It calls for a replacement I-5 bridge that includes up to 10 traffic lanes (counting on and off ramps), a new light-rail connection between Portland and Vancouver, improved access for pedestrians and bicyclists, and updated interchange connections. Kitzhaber called the bridge a 21st century solution that will give travelers a range of options, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and ease greenhouse gas emissions.

The project is still opposed by environmentalists and neighborhood activists who believe it will drain funds from other needed transportation projects and encourage driving. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2013.