By Representative Jamie Herrera Beutler
In recent days, Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart and Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt issued a statement about the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.
Their statement included the following:
* They called on me to immediately support the CRC's preferred $3.5 billion design with light rail and find federal funding to pay for it.
* To convince me, they listed several government agencies and politicians--including Congressmen from Oregon--who support the project.
I responded in order to restate the position I've held all along: I believe this region needs a new bridge that meets our present and future transportation needs. I also believe that the people of Clark County should be allowed to decide through a public vote what they prefer, and what they are willing to pay for.
I reminded Commissioner Stuart and Mayor Leavitt that as C-Tran Board members, it is their responsibility to set the vote as soon as possible. Mayor Leavitt told me six months ago that work was being done to put this issue before voters. Six months later, we don't know who will vote, when the vote will take place, or what will be asked -- yet project sponsors hope to break ground in just over a year. The clock is ticking.
With regard to federal funding, I stated that my belief is that the federal government should pay its share of any replacement bridge. My work reflects that belief. The reality is that the federal Highway Trust Fund is nearly exhausted and will be completely out of money by early 2013. As a member of the Congressional Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, I have been working to advance a long-term bill that would replenish the funding needed to fix our nation's aging infrastructure--and that would include the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.
While I certainly respect the opinions of politicians from Oregon, I reminded Commissioner Stuart and Mayor Leavitt that my most important stakeholders are the citizens of Southwest Washington. While I believe the Oregon Congressmen are representing their constituents to the best of their abilities, I don't represent Oregon. My job is to find out what the people in my district want and fight for them.
Both Mayor Leavitt and Commissioner Stuart issued follow up responses. In his response, Mayor Leavitt suggested that discussing a public vote on whether to raise taxes to pay for light rail was merely a diversion. He called my efforts to push for a public vote a "dangerous game."
I disagree. I believe a public vote on the CRC is centrally important. How can proponents of this design expect this project to succeed without the approval of those who would pay a majority of the tolling for the $3.5 billion project? Voters ought to be able to weigh the facts and voice their opinion. Using alarmist language and calling my advocacy for a vote "dangerous" isn't helpful. It just serves to erode the public's trust in this process.
I think it's time to rebuild the public's trust through a broad, transparent vote of the people. I have called on the C-Tran Board to hold a special election in March of 2012. If the vote passes, project advocates can line up state and federal funding with confidence. If the vote fails, project leaders will need time to develop a plan that can garner more public support.
Our region deserves a bridge across the Columbia River that meets our transportation needs and helps our economy grow. But folks in Southwest Washington should be allowed to participate in the process. I call on this region's elected officials to give them the chance to be heard in March of 2012.