Backers of the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing are working to keep the Interstate 5 bridge project from facing the same scrutiny other highway projects do under Oregon's land-use laws. Instead, they're hoping to push the massive freeway project through a narrow exemption that lawmakers carved out 15 years ago specifically to speed up the siting of light-rail lines.

The project as proposed does include a light-rail line between Portland and Vancouver. But lawmakers probably never contemplated that the light-rail bill would be stretched to allow for a car-centric freeway project on the scale of the Columbia River Crossing. 

The scheduled Aug. 11 vote by Metro on the bridge's sweeping land-use approval has received little attention, even though it's one of the most important steps in the troubled story of the bridge project.

Supporters say it's all perfectly legal: Because the bridge will have a light-rail line, it's covered by the special law. And the remaining $2.7 billion, five-mile freeway expansion, including the bridge itself, are all covered by the law's provisions for "highway improvements" that are associated with building light rail.

"This project is being presented as a single, integrated proposal, with light rail and highway improvements all inextricably tied together," says Andy Cotugno, a senior policy adviser at Metro, the regional government that is set to give the Columbia River Crossing its land-use blessing.

But opponents say Metro's actions will sharply shorten the timelines and limit the grounds on which citizens can appeal. "The process cuts out the public debate that would ordinarily take place," says Michael Lilly, an attorney for Plaid Pantries Inc., which opposes the project. "The whole thing is just being glossed over."

Without question, traffic is a nightmare along I-5 between Vancouver and Portland. But the CRC project—on which Oregon and Washington have already spent $130 million in design and planning costs—has been hurt by poor management and a growing sense that the two states can't come up with the money to pay for it.

There's also evidence, as WW has reported, that the CRC will not fix the traffic problems as promised, and that the states lack a solid plan to pay off the $1.3 billion in bonds needed to build the project (see "A Bridge Too False," WW, June 1, 2011, and "Derailing the Bridge," WW, July 27, 2011).

In formal terms, the Metro Council will vote whether to accept an application from TriMet to find the Columbia River Crossing project sufficient to meet Oregon's land-use standards. The 1996 law has been used  before to approve the siting of light-rail lines that run north to the Expo Center and south to Clackamas Town Center. Each time, the plans called for some highway improvements necessary when siting the new train lines.

Former 1000 Friends of Oregon director Bob Stacey says Metro's action will give the Columbia River Crossing a giant "hall pass" by using a law that was intended for a specific purpose 15 years ago, and one never intended to approve freeway projects. 

"This is a preposterous stretch," Stacey says. "It's a rush job."