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Oregon legislators are finally asking questions about the single largest transportation project in our region's history, the Columbia River Crossing (CRC)—high time since Oregon has already allocated $39.6 million in state funds to the bridge. Sadly, the legislators' discussion over the bridge did not happen on the floor of the house or in a public forum, but in a private meeting Monday with the CRC staff.
North/NE Portland Representative Tina Kotek organized the meeting and described it as a briefing, where CRC project staff fielded questions from legislators for two hours. "Really, it was educational above all else," says Kotek. "There really hasn't been a specific role for the legislature up until now but somewhere down the line the project is going to be a legislative issue."
The legislature DID have a role this past session—it was their job to write up a transportation budget. The transportation committee decided to nix the CRC's $30 million planning dollars from their strapped budgets. But then the Governor-appointed 5-member Oregon Transportation Commission set aside the $30 million for the project anyway!
The overriding of the legislature's wishes was one of the big actions that led a group of legislators to pen an Oregonian editorial saying they'd been railroaded by the process.
"We need a new bridge and the process until now has actually been an impediment to building it. Someone has got to take leadership on the bridge process and the discussion should be in public," says East Portland Representative Nick Kahl, who was invited to Monday's meeting but could not attend. "I think everyone acknowledges that we're not talking about a $4.2 billion bridge anymore. So what sort of bridge are people being briefed about behind closed doors? If I, a vice chair of the transportation committee, don't know, then who does?"
State Representative Mike Schaufler, who was at the meeting, says the briefing was straightforward. "It was just a casual meeting among some legislators from across the river. These kinds of meetings happen all the time." There's nothing about the meeting not being publicly advertised that makes it "bad, illegal, immoral or unethical," he says. As a gesture of openness, Schaufler invited me and any other interested media to all future legislative meetings on the CRC. The House and Senate transportation committees are going to get another briefing from the CRC staff on November 19th.
Kotek promises the legislature's discussion will be different the next time the politicians looks at the CRC budget. "I don't think we've had a robust discussion in the legislature about the CRC. In 2011, we'll be having this discussion in a much more specific way," says Kotek. She also says does not expect the Democractic party as a whole to take a stance on the design or funding of the bridge, explaining, "It's not really a party issue."