Metro councilors granted a cautious yet key approval to the Columbia River Crossing project* Thursday, voting to sign off that many of Metro’s concerns about the project have been addressed, or will be.
After a two-hour meeting, councilors voted 5-1 in favor of a resolution saying that the concerns, first raised in the council’s 2008 approval of the locally preferred alternative, were being addressed.
They didn’t get there easily.
Nearly 30 people signed up to testify, the majority of whom were opposed to the project or some part of it. Concerns ranged from questions about the project’s financing plan, to whether a new downstream bridge should be studied, to whether the project at all fits in Portland’s way of planning.
“You are at a crossing point, at least as important as this region’s decision to stop the Mt. Hood freeway, the Westside bypass and to build light rail,” said Bob Stacey, who narrowly lost the 2010 race for Metro Council president. “I encourage you to stay on the path you’ve set over the last 30 years, and not make a big U-turn.”
Also encouraging a no vote was Mara Gross, policy director for the Coalition for a Livable Future.
Support for “the most expensive project in the region’s history is based on misstatements and false assumptions,” she said.
Hayden Island resident Pamela Ferguson spoke about environmental justice, asking the council to push for a surface street bridge between Hayden Island and the Expo Center to be built early in the project. Interstate 5 is the only road to the island.
“Many of our seniors are afraid they’ll never live to see this bridge built,” she said.
Councilors, at a May 31 work session, generally seemed supportive of the resolution, and it was expected to pass.
But for a time Thursday, it seemed as though a path had been laid out for the motion to at least be delayed – a path laid by former Metro Councilor Robert Liberty, who resigned in January.
Councilor Carl Hosticka read a letter from Liberty into the record, criticizing the way representatives from the Columbia River Crossing project had answered the council’s questions from 2008.
“What you have before you is not the satisfaction of your conditions, but rather descriptions of how they might be satisfied in the future,” Liberty wrote. “I urge you to table (the resolution) to… your first regular meeting in June of 2012.”
Hosticka then explained why he’d be voting against the resolution.
“We’re asked not to vote on whether the conditions have been met, but whether we’re comfortable with the idea that the discussions and work that has been suggested will proceed in a direction that causes our conditions to be met,” Hosticka said. “I can’t support that…I don’t want to pass on the responsibility that I have to ensure these conditions are being met by saying ‘OK, go ahead, do it – we think you’ll do the right thing.'”
Councilor Barbara Roberts, who replaced Liberty on the council and who has been working on the project since her term as governor, seemed to lean in that direction.
“A year’s delay would not be the end of the world if we had those questions better answered a year from now,” she said.
But instead of casting the second dissenting vote, Roberts went back to how she described this step in the process at the May 31 work session – as a leap of faith.
“I do believe most of the people who are working on this project care about the outcome and the quality,” she said. “Even though I don’t have all the answers in front of me today, I expect them to come.”
After the meeting, Roberts said she is still concerned about how many loose ends there seem to be.
“The hesitation you saw today is a sign of discomfort about something that I think should have more strong answers, even at this stage,” she said. “I want to see those answers start coming in.”
And while those answers may not come during the remainder of her term on the council – she’s said she’s not running for re-election in 2012 – there are some issues she said she’ll be following moving forward.
The questions raised by Hayden Island about shopping, living, transportation, should have answers – and soon.
“They have a right to know, because they are the most seriously impacted of any area,” she said. “They should get those answers so they can rest a little more assured.”
Council President Tom Hughes acknowledged some of the questions about the project hadn’t been answered, but said some of that was a matter of phasing – some questions can’t be answered until more study has been done.
Hughes harkened back to the 2010 campaign for council president, and the many forums he had with Stacey where the crossing project invariably came up.
“The thing that gave them the least faith in government was the fact that we had been talking about this for so long and we had not moved it forward,” Hughes said.
Councilor Shirley Craddick also supported the resolution, but took a particular interest in the concerns about air pollution monitoring, saying she didn’t feel as those had been addressed.
But, she said, the project needed to move forward.
“If I had my druthers, I would like to vote no,” she said. “But we’ve got to take the next step.”
Councilor Rex Burkholder, possibly the project’s biggest advocate on the council, assured councilors they will have opportunities to reconsider their support for the Crossing.
“You will see this thing coming back more times than you want it to,” he said. “We are an important player in this piece.”
Roberts, after the meeting, vowed that would be the case.
“I don’t tend to be quiet on this project,” she said. “If I’m going to give it my vote, I’m going to be much more vocal about what I expect.”
The council is scheduled to vote on a land use approval for the project in August.
Nick Christensen is a news reporter for Metro, covering agency issues and decisions from an objective point of view. His stories are not subject to the approval of Metro staff or elected officials, and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro staff or councilors. The post originally appeared here.
Metro news reporter Nick Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-813-7583.
* The well-documented cost to taxpayers, if the CRC stays on budget, is $10 billion. This was established by the Cortright Report (PDF) which used data from an independent review panel hired by the governors of Washington and Oregon. (View the panel’s final report.)
See our continuing coverage of the Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project.
Do you have information to share on the CRC? To respond anonymously call 260-816-1426. To allow your comments to be used on COUV.COM call 260-816-1429.