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CRC, other transit improvements could compete for funding

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Congestion is growing throughout the region as state freeway projects compete for funding.Local elected officials are pushing for new state transportation projects throughout the region to fight increasing congestion.

They include the rebuilding of a busy freeway interchange in Portland, a freeway widening project in Clackamas County, and yet-to-be identified transportation improvements in Washington County.

Funding for these projects still has not been identified. But the push for them is raising the stakes even more for supporters of the Columbia River Crossing. They hope to revive some version of the $3.5 billion project if Gov. John Kitzhaber calls the Oregon Legislature into special session this summer.

Because Washington refused to fund its share of the Interstate 5 replacement bridge and freeway improvement project, that’s considered a long shot, at best. If some form of the CRC cannot be salvaged, a number of smaller projects related to it eventually may be proposed. But they likely will have to compete for funding with other projects that have been on the drawing board for a long time, along with the new ones that are beginning to gain support.

One new proposal would rebuild the busy Broadway/Weidler interchange on I-5 in Northeast Portland. Mayor Sam Adams worked with the Oregon Department of Transportation before he left office to draft a plan to ease the congestion and improve safety there. It calls for the reconstruction of both I-5 and city streets in the area. No budget or schedule has been set for it yet.

Another proposed project would widen Interstate 205 from four to six lanes between the Highway 99E and Stafford Road interchanges. The Clackamas County Commission sent a letter to Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett on June 25 calling for the widening project. Most of the 37-mile freeway already is six lanes wide.

According to the letter, the five-mile, four-lane stretch is a chokepoint that will only grow worse as the population of the region increases.

“Attention to this issue is needed if we are to preserve the reliability of the regional highway system for businesses, industries and residences,” according to the letter.

Garrett has not yet responded to it.

A highway project in Clackamas County also will need more state money to be completed. Ground was broken on the first phase of the Sunrise Corridor on July 31. Using $130 million approved by the 2009 Oregon Legislature, ODOT is building a new two-lane state highway from I-205 to Southeast 122nd Avenue. Some of the money also will be used for county road improvements related to the work. The full project calls for completing the highway to 172nd Avenue and reconfiguring I-205 for better access to it. Those funds have not yet been secured.

The Oregon Legislature already has agreed to help Washington County seek solutions to its growing congestion problems. The 2013 session approved $1.5 million for the Washington County Transportation Solutions Study, an idea first proposed by the Hillsboro City Council late last year.

At the time, alternative transportation advocates accused the council of trying to revive the Westside Bypass, a plan to build a new freeway from I-5 near Wilsonville to the Sunset Highway in Hillsboro. Mayor Jerry Willey responded that the council was only calling for a study of the worsening traffic situation. For example, high-tech manufacturers in Hillsboro like Intel and SolarWorld are finding it increasingly difficult to get their goods to the Port of Portland, especially during rush hour.

State Sen. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro convinced lawmakers to give the county enough money to get the study started. County transportation officials are discussing it with potential partners and stakeholders to determine the scope and schedule of the study. Future legislatures will decide whether to fund any of its recommendations.

All of these projects must be included in the Regional Transportation Plan approved by Metro for them to be funded. That is where they eventually may compete for funds with remnants of the Columbia River Crossing.

Kitzhaber declared the CRC dead when Washington House Republicans refused to fund their state’s share of the massive project. At the time, Kitzhaber directed ODOT to recommend smaller projects to reduce congestion and improve safety on I-5 from Hayden Island to the Washington side of the Interstate Bridge.

The 2013 Oregon Legislature agreed to sell $450 million in bonds to fund the state’s share of the CRC. That commitment expires in September. If Kitzhaber calls lawmakers into special session before then, the deadline could be extended if the CRC is reconsidered as an Oregon-only project. If not, the commitment likely will lapse because ODOT has not yet begun the process of identifying the smaller projects.

Based on the problems identified during the lengthy CRC planning process, they could include reinforcing the existing Interstate Bridge to better withstand earthquakes. The project also called for rebuilding the interchange to Hayden Island. State transportation officials might agree to that if the city of Portland annexes West Hayden Island so that the Port of Portland can develop it.

That decision will not be made for several months at the earliest, however.

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