CRC coalition hopes to bridge funding gap

In June, the Columbia River Crossing Task Force announced its recommendation to replace Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland with the addition of light rail. But having a plan isn’t the same as having the money to implement that plan.

That’s where the Columbia River Crossing Coalition comes in.

“The coalition will advocate for the state and federal funding necessary to build this crucial transportation improvement,” said Ginger Metcalf, executive director of Identity Clark County.

Composed of a broad group of businesses and organizations on both sides of the river, the CRC Coalition is modeled after the highly successful Columbia River Channel Deepening Coalition, which organized disparate communities affected by the project, sought funding and disseminated information about the project. Metcalf sees the new coalition serving a similar role.

Membership is open to any organization that endorses the crossing project and a board of directors will govern the coalition.

Metcalf said competition for state and federal transportation and transit dollars is fierce.

There are at least three other large projects in the works on the West Coast  and procuring funding for the CRC project will require educating state and federal officials about its importance and showing them a concerted, broad base of support from the affected community.

The coalition is well on its way toward this goal, with more than 65 organizational and business members representing a cross-section of industries that depend on I-5 for their livelihood – farm organizations, real estate firms, labor unions, ports, trucking and shipping firms and many others.

(A full list of members can be found at the coalition website, www.crossingcoalition.com.)

The search for an executive director is underway and Metcalf expects to make a hire by the end of August.

She envisions the coalition will have a three- to five-year lifespan with a projected operating budget of $200,000 to $225,000 per year. The group has raised $65,000 so far.

This progress puts the coalition a “jump ahead” of the other major transportation projects, such as the North-South Highway in Spokane and the floating bridge project in Seattle, Metcalf said.

“We have a narrow window of opportunity,” she said, adding that the federal six-year cycle for transportation funding (for roads, highways and bridges) and the cycle for transit funding (for light rail and buses), will start over in 2009.

United States Sen. Patty Murray has given the coalition her “energetic blessing,” Metcalf said, adding that it needs to be poised to leverage Murray’s position on the federal Transportation Committee – specifically to ensure I-5 is included in the new “Corridors of the Future” list of projects that will get priority funding.

Bob Byrd, chairman of ICC’s transportation committee and a member of the CRC Task Force, estimated a price tag of $4 billion for the entire crossing project, stressing that a final price is impossible to guess until the design details are hammered out.

Bart Phillips, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council – a member of the coalition – called the crossing project “the most critical funding issue facing the community today.”

The project, he said, isn’t a “local roads project” but rather a “100-year project” that affects the entire West Coast infrastructure.

“Nobody likes to spend this type of money,” said Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business, another coalition member. “But if we don’t do it, we’re choking off the economic lifeblood of the region.”

“I-5 is the transportation spine for the whole Northwest,” said Roger Qualman, executive vice president at commercial real estate firm NAI Norris Beggs and Simpson, another founding coalition member. “The coalition is a very compelling, powerful way to bring varied interests to bear on a common issue.”

The future of the I-5 bridge

The Locally Preferred Alternative recommended by the Columbia River Crossing Task Force calls for a replacement Interstate 5 bridge and light rail extended to Clark College. The project encompasses a five-mile stretch of I-5 and includes not only the bridge, but three interchanges on the Portland side and four interchanges on the Vancouver side.