Columbia River Crossing: Where's the debate?

Columbia River Crossing: Where's the debate?

Jules Bailey, Cliff Bentz and Brian Clem
Guest Opinion
The Oregonian
September 08, 2009

The Oregon Transportation Commission recently approved $30 million in additional money for the Columbia River Crossing, which brings the amount committed by Oregon and Washington to the project to $95 million.

Most of the additional money will be spent on further studies of a 12-lane bridge design that has neither been approved nor seriously debated by elected leaders of those most affected by what will be the largest single infrastructure investment in Oregon's history.
We three legislators, a bipartisan group representing rural and urban Oregon, share the concerns expressed by officials from Portland and Vancouver during their recent meeting with Oregon and Washington transportation department leaders. Local officials wondered who is making the decisions that will so dramatically impact every person in Oregon and Washington, and for that matter, all of the western United States. The answer should be that the people of both states will make the decisions, and for that to happen, their elected representatives must have the opportunity to debate the project in an open, timely and productive way.

On July 27, The Oregonian editorial board wrote that "in theory, everybody's signed off on the 12-lane bridge connecting Portland to Vancouver." We object to that characterization. The Legislature has not signed off on that plan, and, in fact, did pretty much the opposite in the last session. When the original version of the Jobs and Transportation Act was presented, it included a specific allocation of $30 million to the Columbia crossing project. But it was removed when many citizens and legislators objected, believing that there were better ways to spend Oregonians' money to create jobs and that now was not the time to push forward with the project given the sad state of the economy.

Only once during the legislative session did the project come up on the floor -- when we passed a bill to encourage tolling on bridges across the Columbia, a funding solution that asks all commuters to pay their share. But that bill was vetoed.

Spending $4.3 billion of tax- and toll-payer money would alone demand a vigorous debate. But this transportation project involves far more than the cost of its construction. There is a need to improve safety and to get goods to market. But how and at what cost to the residents of Portland and Vancouver and to the rest of the two states must be taken up at every level, including the Legislature.

Questions such as why Oregon should subsidize Vancouver commuters, trucks bound for California, bicyclists, light rail, pedestrians and more emissions from increased traffic must be asked and answered. Responsibility for the final project decision-making must be clearly understood, and the people and organizations making those billion-dollar decisions must be ready to justify them.

As it stands, we still have many questions regarding the Columbia River Crossing and the recent $30 million allocation. We have yet to hear why adding more traffic lanes will not make a bad situation worse. We have not heard why this expenditure should be made now, in the midst of a recession, when the money could be spent in a more effective job-generating way. And most importantly, we have not heard how the commissions and the governors plan to bring the people of this state to the table to weigh in on a project that will affect every Oregonian. 

Jules Bailey, a Democrat, represents Portland in the Oregon House of Representatives. Cliff Bentz, a Republican, represents Ontario in the House. Brian Clem, a Democrat, represents Salem in the House.