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Originally published July 1, 2013 at 8:49 PM | Page modified July 1, 2013 at 9:24 PM

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State Senate deadlock kills Columbia Crossing

Just months before construction was to begin, a plan to build a new bridge with light rail across the Columbia River, connecting Vancouver with Portland, died amid Republican opposition in the Washington state Senate.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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VANCOUVER, Wash. — After years of planning and $175 million in spending, the Columbia River Crossing, an ambitious plan to couple a light-rail system to a new bridge connecting this city with Portland, is dead.

In the aftermath of the Washington state Senate’s refusal to consider a transportation funding package, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber have ordered the closure of the project office.

“We are starting today. We expect it to be completely shut down by the end of the year, if not sooner,” said Mandy Putney, spokeswoman for the project, which employs 96 public employees and contractors.

Commuting across the Columbia River on the aging, six-lane bridge that links Vancouver and Portland has long been an exercise in patience. Interstate 5 traffic backs up for hours before the peak of rush hour, and is occasionally aggravated by an accident or raised span to allow a vessel’s passage.

Aside from the Columbia River Crossing project, there have been other proposals in the past for a new bridge over the Columbia. The current structure has spans built in 1916 and 1958.

But it remains unclear what, if any, new bridge project can eventually gain enough political traction in Oregon and Washington to have a chance for funding.

The implosion of the $3.4 billion project came just months before it was scheduled to begin. The new bridge was scheduled to be open in both directions by 2020.

The Columbia River Crossing, or CRC, was billed as a “long-term, comprehensive solution.” It was supposed to produce a new bridge that would meet current seismic standards, reduce accidents and congestion, improve pedestrian and bicycle pathways and link Vancouver to Portland’s light-rail system.

But in the Washington Legislature, Republican lawmakers mounted fierce objections to the project. Much of their criticism was aimed at the inclusion of light rail, which they said would be a costly white elephant that would not generate enough traffic to justify the expense.

“We told the governor from the very start that to send us a funding package with the CRC in it — it will be dead on arrival,’’ said state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. “He just wouldn’t listen.”

On Monday, Inslee said that the Senate majority’s coalition was “leaving a bridge that was sunk into the mud when Woodrow Wilson was president without any plans whatsoever with how to deal with this aging bridge. The fact of the matter is that they have totally asphyxiated any financial support to move forward.”

Benton said he has long supported building a new bridge across the Columbia River, but he says it should be a third bridge in a different part of the Portland-Vancouver area and should not include light rail.

“We should have started 15 years ago looking at a third crossing,” Benton said.

But Washington state backers of the CRC say such a project would never gain support in Oregon.

“We don’t get to build the bridge by ourselves,” said state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, who says a new project should be developed that includes both a bridge and light rail.

Moeller said the Columbia River Crossing staff “shot themselves in the foot” when they initially designed a bridge that, in order to accommodate light rail, would have been too low to allow some large vessels to pass underneath and would have had no liftable span.

The current plan had a higher clearance, but several local companies’ construction barges still would have been unable to pass under. Some had negotiated agreements that were to include financial compensation.

Moeller said that “we have to start again” to design a new project. But he has come away from the Columbia River Crossing project with some lessons learned. “We need to do a better job of engaging the public and giving them a vision that they can get behind,” he said.

Hal Bernton: 206-464-2581 or hbernton@seattletimes.com

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