Columbia River Crossing (CRC) the bridge that wont be built collapsed last Saturday into a swamp of politics, faulty design and a public-opinion climate no longer favorable to grandiose projects.
Even so, there continues to be widespread acknowledgement that the Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., must be dealt with. With twin spans built in 1917 and 1958, it is seriously obsolete. A bottleneck at a key economic focal point on the West Coast, it is ripe for an accident on the scale of the one that recently disrupted traffic over the Skagit River north of Seattle. The I-5 bridge would be far more difficult to temporarily fix.
The Washington State Senate effectively killed CRC Saturday by adjourning from an extraordinarily rancorous 153-day session without authorizing Washingtons $450 million share of bridge expense. In total, the project was to have cost $3.4 billion, with the federal treasury shouldering most of the cost. To pay the states share, the Washington House wanted to implement an immediate 101/2 cent increase to the state gas tax, with another steep hike planned later. This did not sit well with the Republican-led Senate, or with most taxpayers.
There were many other problems with the CRC. Willamette Week investigations disclosed that Oregon Gov. John Kitzhabers key bridge adviser was compensated by the bridges main contractor. Projected traffic numbers were of dubious worth. The new bridge wasnt designed to be tall enough to accommodate existing vessel traffic along the river. Tolling was controversial, especially in Vancouver. And the list goes on.
Although most political elites in both states were inclined to hurry the CRC along despite misgivings, the Washington Senate was, in this instance, more closely attuned to reality and public sentiment. Still emerging from the Great Recession and a long way from regaining their financial status of a decade ago, citizens want to see government explore the same hard choices families have been forced to make.
Instead, the CRC was like a 2005-era bloated mansion with a huge mortgage, larded up with excessive expenses at every stage.
Even for us at the mouth of the Columbia River, coming up with an economical and pragmatic upgrade of the I-5 bridge is an important goal. Our regions future depends in part on making sure people and products can pass easily though the Portland-Vancouver corridor.
It would be a mistake, however, for politicians to simply resurrect a slightly tweaked CRC at some point in the near future. Somehow, this project must be wrestled back to reality and peeled out of the hands of the lobbyists and consultants.
There are options. As summarized Sunday in The Oregonian, a $1.8 billion project envisioned by architect George Crandall and mass-transit advocate Jim Howell would phase in railroad-bridge renovation and a series of spans for cars, trucks, trains, cyclists and pedestrians. Its centerpiece would be an elegant, two-tower cable-stay bridge with trains whisking passengers between Vancouver Station and Portlands Union Station in 10 to 12 minutes.
CRC was a project too big to sustain its own weight. Its time to learn from this expensive failure and move in a smarter, smaller direction.