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The Hour Of Decision Is Near For The Columbia River Crossing

Colin Fogarty
Northwest News Network
Interstate 5 spans the Columbia River between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington.

The Columbia River lazily passes under Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver, Wash. You wouldn't really call the water troubled. The bridges over it, however, are. 

Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber says time is running short for Oregon lawmakers to take the lead in building a new I-5 bridge across the Columbia River. This week the Democrat issued an ultimatum to lawmakers to act before the end of the 2014 session in March. Otherwise he'll shut the project down.

The warning is just the latest twist in the decade-long effort to break ground on the mega-project.

The cost of time

The twin bridges are frequently gridlocked during rush hours. When they lift to allow ships to pass, traffic grinds to a halt. And if a major earthquake hits, the whole bloomin' thing could crumble into the river.

"There is a continuing urgency for this project," says Democratic Representative Tobias Read, one of the leading supporters in the Oregon legislature for replacing the aging I-5 bridges. The $2.8 billion project would include several new interchanges and a light rail line.

Some Oregon and Washington lawmakers have questioned the plan and it appears the whole project is in jeopardy of stalling. Read says the longer the two states wait, the more taxpayers and drivers will ultimately end up paying.

"The cost of time in this is not insignificant," he says. "So even if those designs are perfectly applicable in the future -- and I am not qualified to say whether they are -- it's going to cost more to do it in the future."

Going it alone

Washington state lawmakers failed to approve funding a portion of the project last year, so Read and others in the Oregon legislature started talking about an Oregon-only approach. The idea is that the state would move ahead with building the bridge but would scale back the improvements on the Washington side.

Some Oregon lawmakers were skeptical of that approach during a recent hearing in Salem. And lawmakers in Olympia have their own set of concerns.

Republican state Senator Don Benton, whose district includes Vancouver, is sponsoring a bill that would prevent Oregon from using eminent domain to acquire property on the Washington side of the river.

"The idea that citizens of a state would have to defend eminent domain action initiated by another state would violate due process and the basic concepts of state sovereignty," says Benton.

But some in Olympia think Washington should fully cooperate with Oregon to build the bridge. Democratic Representative Judy Clibborn, chair of the House Transportation Committee in Olympia says opponents like Senator Benton are just unhappy about the scope of the project.

"What they really want is to start over," she says. "They don't want the way it was designed. They don't want it to have light rail on it. They're just completely in another world."

A project in limbo

Many project observers say next month will be a make-or-break moment for the Columbia River Crossing.

"The prospect of moving it ahead in a short period of time if it doesn't go forward now, I think is non-existent," says Portland attorney Henry Hewitt, former co-chair of the Columbia River Crossing Commission. "I think it will take a new generation of leadership."

Hewitt says scrapping it now would largely negate more than a decade of planning. Work that he says could soon be for naught.

"If they get together in February, hopefully they'll vote on it one way or another and we'll find out whether we're going to have a project or wait 20 years and think about it again," says Hewitt.

If Oregon lawmakers don't approve the project by mid-March, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber says he'll order the state's Department of Transportation to shut the bridge project down. In a letter to lawmakers, the governor said a project in limbo is the worst and most expensive outcome for Oregon.