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Originally published June 1, 2013 at 4:06 PM | Page modified June 3, 2013 at 1:05 PM

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Guest: Con — Columbia River Crossing should not include light rail

The design for the new Columbia River Crossing has its priorities wrong, writes state Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. River users should take precedence over plans to bring light rail to Washington’s Clark County.

Special to The Times

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From the start, the deliberations and design of the new Columbia River Crossing have had the priorities all wrong.

Instead of taking into consideration the needs of upriver businesses first, officials for Oregon’s and Washington’s transportation departments have seemed focused on one thing: bringing light rail into Washington’s Clark County.

The problem: light rail is too expensive, won’t improve congestion or safety and isn’t necessary.

The design’s initial clearance height of 95 feet from the low-water mark to the bridge, chosen to minimize the climb for light rail, would only accommodate vessels less than 70 feet high. The average water level is 16 feet higher and a 10-foot clearance is required at the top.

This limitation would have prevented 56 businesses upriver from using the Columbia to ship their products. When this negative impact was identified, the designers from Washington and Oregon departments of transportation increased the height to 110 feet, and later to 116 feet. If CRC designers were at all concerned about the river’s users, shouldn’t the tallest clearance have been chosen first?

Public transit had to be included to gain federal funding. Hoping to garner $850 million from the feds, the CRC designers chose light rail — something Clark County voters have rejected several times. Oregon’s governor said, without light rail, there will be no bridge.

Initially we were told the $850 million in federal money would cover the cost of light rail. However, the most recent cost projections put the light-rail total around $925 million. Where will we get the additional millions? From tolling, according to senior Washington Department of Transportation staff, though tolls have never been collected before to pay for transit. Clark County residents will pay 65 to 70 percent of those tolls.

We can save hundreds of millions by using bus rapid transit in place of light rail. It is flexible, costs less to start, quickly accommodates changing demands, and qualifies for those same federal funds. As an added bonus: the bus rapid transit jobs would all come from Washington — something not true of light rail.

The projections for congestion improvement with light rail are one minute one way and eight minutes the other. These savings will rapidly disappear, considering projected growth.

If the costs are underestimated, the interchanges that are part of the congestion problem will not be completed. The new bridge was to provide quicker travel times, improved safety and better freight mobility, but it only provides light rail.

We’re told if there is a major earthquake, the old existing bridge will fail. Yet in 2005, Oregon Department of Transportation issued a report that states “with ongoing preservation, the bridges can serve the public for another 60 years.”

There are four major Washington businesses that use the 3,000-ton dock at the Columbia Business Park, the only facility of its kind on the West Coast. Vessels serving those businesses often require a higher clearance under the bridge. The CRC project will pay these businesses hundreds of millions of dollars in mitigation costs and they may still move to Louisiana or Texas. Washington stands to lose hundreds of family wage jobs.

The proposed bridge does not have a lift (a section of the bridge that can be raised to allow taller vessels to pass beneath). The existing bridge has a lift and without light rail we can build a bridge that includes a lift to accommodate those special times when more clearance is needed. The lift would be used infrequently, and would keep family-wage jobs in Washington.

Let’s build a bridge designed to meet the needs of all users — commuters, freight movers, upriver businesses, and shippers — not a bridge designed only for light rail.

State Sen. Curtis King, R- Yakima, is co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.

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