June 6, 2008 Volume 109 Number 11

Building trades unions say: 'Enough talk. Build the bridge now'

Building trades union officials are scratching their heads over a resolution introduced May 27 at the regional Metro Council that, if passed, could scuttle a proposed $4.2 billion Interstate 5 bridge project spanning the Columbia River.

Councilors Carlotta Collette, Robert Liberty and Carl Hosticka co-signed a resolution that calls for charging tolls on the current bridge between Portland and Vancouver, using the money to earthquake-proof the structure and to shore up on-ramps, and put off any decision on what to do with the bridge.

Liberty and Collette were re-elected by wide margins in the May primary. Hosticka ran unopposed.

The Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council and the Pacific NW Regional Council of Carpenters support a proposal that includes replacing the 91-year-old bridge with a new one, and overhauling a five-mile stretch of I-5 from North Columbia Boulevard in Portland to State Route 500 in Vancouver. The new bridge would include a 12-lane highway, light rail, and lanes for bikes and pedestrians.

That option is the unofficial choice of a 39-member task force that has been studying how to relieve the Interstate Bridge traffic bottleneck. The task force — Columbia River Crossing (CRC) — was formed to make a recommendation to the Washington and Oregon transportation departments. It is composed of leaders from public agencies, businesses, labor, civic organizations, neighborhoods and freight, commuter and environmental groups from Oregon and Southwest Washington.

The task force has been meeting and holding public hearings regularly since early 2005. Over that time, it has boiled proposals down to five alternatives, including keeping the existing bridge (which is actually two bridges right next to each other) for northbound traffic and adding a supplemental bridge to carry southbound traffic; adding bus-only lanes instead of light rail, replacing the bridge, and doing nothing at all.

In January, an informal straw poll indicated a majority of the task force favored a replacement bridge. So do Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.

Support is critical because before any option can move forward it must win approval from eight public entities — the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Washington Department of Transportation, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, TriMet, C-Tran, City of Portland, City of Vancouver, and Metro.

That’s why the action of the three Metro councilors has upset union officials and others who have worked so hard to get to this stage.

“There’s no reason Metro should be opposing this new bridge. It makes no sense,” said Lynn Lehrbach, political director of Teamsters Joint Council No. 37. Lehrbach also sits on the TriMet board of directors.

The Metro Council is a 7-member body, so the three councilors need one more vote to pass their resolution. Union officials and members are lobbying Metro to replace the bridge.

Meanwhile, on May 2, a 5,000-page federal Draft Environmental Impact Statement outlining the five CRC alternatives was released. The public has 60 days —until July 1 — to comment. A coalition of 13 organizations that oppose a replacement bridge tried to get the public comment period extended an additional 60 days, but the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Administration denied the request.

At a public hearing May 29 in Vancouver, John Mohlis, executive secretary-treasurer of the CPBCTC, reiterated the trades’ support of a replacement bridge. He also objected to earlier testimony suggesting that seismic upgrades to the current bridges were all that was needed. “I don’t care how much lipstick you put on those bridges, they are still drawbridges on a major interstate highway. That’s ludicrous in this day and age,” he said.

At a hearing May 30 in Portland, Carpenters Union official Joe Baron said further delays will only make the project more expensive. “Build it big, and build it now,” he said.

The eight public agencies will vote sometime this summer on which alternative they support. The CRC task force meets again on June 24.


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