Why did I drive all the way to Salem this afternoon just to attend one meeting entitled “Informational hearing on the status of the Columbia River Crossing”? Because I’m interested in how backers of the big bridge are pitching the project to state legislators.
Last spring, legislators were highly skeptical of funding the then-$4.2 billion project. The transportation committee nixed $30 million in Columbia River Crossing (CRC) planning funds from the state budget. After coming under fire from local, state and national politicians over the project’s cost and environmental impact, the CRC staff this month announced a simpler plan: the slimmed-down project proposes a 10 lane rather than 12 lane bridge and makes other cuts that reduce the project budget by $650 million.
So now the bridge is back. Today’s hearing on the CRC was not open to public testimony, which means only invited speakers testified about where the project is at. All of those invited speakers were supporters of the project, namely Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond, Oregon Department of Transportation’s Matt Garrett and Richard Branman and NE Portland Representative Tina Kotek.
And what’s the sales pitch? Same as it ever was: jobs.
“The question I get asked when we talk about this is, ‘When are we going to start building?’ Kotek told the transportation committee, describing the project as a “win-sin situation” that would create 20,000 jobs in the region.
Garrett and Branman stressed that the current congested bridge disadvantages Oregon business and keeps new business from locating here. “Here is a project, where if we make the investment, brings up to 20,000 jobs,” said Garrett. “It will be a gift that keeps on giving."
On my way out of the meeting, a union representative snagged me and hit home the same message. "Do you know what the unemployment rate is right now in construction? Thirty-five percent!" said Joe Esmonde of IBEW 48, adding that they also supported the Oregon League of Conversation Voters. "We're not redneck sons of bitches, you know."
Members of the committee were wary of looking critical of the controversial project. When asking basic questions about the refined project, Representatives Bentz, Berger and Kahl prefaced their remarks with, “I’m a supporter of the project…” Representative Mike Schaufler went further, launching into a fiery oration about the need to break ground on the $2.6-3.6 billion project ASAP. “It is criminal to delay, obstruct, deny and prohibit this project from going forward. Every day we wait is one more day that workers aren’t out there working,” said Schaufler. “I’m done. I don’t need another public meeting”
Representative Kahl, who has been an outspoken critic of the bridge project in the last year, seemed swayed by the $650 million in cuts. “I’m becoming increasingly satisfied with the design of the bridge,” said Kahl, noting that he is still concerned about the lack of solid support for light rail in Vancouver or any discussion of land use policy in the discussion about a bridge that critics say will lead to sprawl.
In critics’ opinions, pitching an obscenely-high, impossible-to-fund budget and then reducing it to a slightly-less obscene figure does not represent progress. “My overall first impression take is it’s pretty similar to the original project, essentially repackaging the same thing. It’s still a megabridge,” says Mara Gross of Coalition for a Livable Future, one of five groups that called for the project to pay for a $4 million independent analysis of what to do about the corridor rather than rolling forward with the state highway departments’ plan.
Environment Oregon’s Brock Howell listened in to the meeting and pointed to the $72 million the project has so far spent on planning and outreach. “WSDOT and ODOT have done a fantastic job of organizing this, they clearly have a lot more financial resources than the public interest,” says Howell.
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