Photo and Map Courtesy of Columbia River Commission
Many transportation planners say future options include smaller projects to eliminate existing bridge lifts and ease traffic on I-5.

Ninety-six employees of the ill-fated Columbia River Crossing, or CRC, project must now pack up their Vancouver, Wash., headquarters due to the sudden demise of a $3.5-billion bi-state project aimed at constructing a new bridge, light-rail and highway interchange to span the Columbia River and also connect Portland, Ore., to Vancouver. Legislators, transportation insiders and commuters are analyzing what killed one of the nation's largest transportation projects and what they can do now to unblock chronic congestion on Interstate 5.

With more than $175 million spent since 2004, the plan to replace a pair of two-lane bridges, built in 1917 and 1958, with a 10-lane, light-rail-inclusive span officially fizzled during the waning hours of June, after the Washington state Senate failed to vote on a $10-billion transportation bill that included $450 million for the CRC. Oregon had agreed to fund its portion of the partially federally funded project in March. But without Washington state, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) both declared the project cancelled.

The CRC's future? There is no future, says CRC spokesperson Mandy Putney. "We have 96 staff, computers, desks, files, and we are trying to determine where to put everything," she says. "All the files need to be stored and archived and made available if needed."

Putney expects the office—with staff representing Portland agency TriCounty Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon; Oregon Dept. of Transportation; Washington State Dept. of Transportation; Vancouver, Wash.-based Clark County Public Transit Benefit Area Authority and 14 development agencies—to close most operations by August.

While climbing project costs, prolonged deadlines and contested tolling figures all plagued the project, the two main bullets that took the CRC down were Oregon's insistence on light-rail inclusion and several design mistakes. The original open-web box design was scrapped after independent reviews found it too tricky and costly to construct (ENR 2/14/11 p. 9). The 16-member panel recommended three alternatives, and the CRC chose a basic composite-deck truss scheme. The design was uninspiring, but it placed costs closer to $2 billion for the bridge portion alone.

But the U.S. Coast Guard adamantly opposed allowing the planned bridge height of 95 ft, saying it would impede river traffic (ENR 3/26/12 p. 11). That resulted in a review and revision to 116 ft, including mitigation for downstream businesses. But even the 116-ft height could have negative long-term impacts, opponents say.

One of the limiting factors in bridge height was a direct result of the insistence on accommodating light rail, which imposed a limit on the slope. "Because of … the inability of light rail to climb a grade, yes, I believe it was light rail that ultimately killed the project," says Rep. Don Benton (R-Vancouver). "It is a bad idea to let alternative modes become the primary driver on a highway project."

Across the board, Washington state's new Republican majority didn't want to bear the cost of light rail, especially for the largely rural southwest portion of the state that doesn't have such service. "This gives me a glimmer of hope we can still figure out how to get this right," says Rep. Paul Harris (R-Vancouver). "This obviously was not the right project, and we can work on a common-sense option."