U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer Says It’s Light Rail or Bust for the Next Columbia River Bridge

In an interview with WW, Blumenauer was clear: light rail, or no bridge at all.

In an interview with WW on April 9, U.S Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) said there’s only one way the federal government will fund a new Columbia River bridge connecting Oregon and Washington: if it includes a light rail line.

"If I have anything to say about it, [the Columbia River bridge] will never be built unless it does," Blumenauer told WW.

The congressman is hopeful Oregon and Washington can secure federal funding for a replacement Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia, given that President Joe Biden's aggressive infrastructure package is poised to send billions of dollars to crucial transportation projects.

A little context: Oregon and Washington burned through more than $175 million designing the Columbia River Crossing between 2010 and 2013. Costs ballooned, critics revealed the bridge wasn't high enough for ships to pass under it, and WW's reporting showed Oregon's plan to pay for it was flawed. But the death knell for the CRC was opposition to light rail from public officials in Vancouver, Wash.

Blumenauer calls his inability to land the Columbia River Crossing "one of the great frustrations of my career."

In recent weeks, Washington state lawmakers have begun crafting plans for another replacement bridge, anticipating a federal funding opportunity. Blumenauer is confident both Oregon's and Washington's governors are unequivocally backing light rail as a centerpiece of a new bridge funded by the Biden administration.

"It's a deal breaker unless it's there. Talk to Jay Inslee, talk to Kate Brown, talk to their transportation commissions, talk to the Biden administration," Blumenauer says. "I don't think there will be any hint from the Biden administration that they're interested in it otherwise, and I think that's where Jay and Kate are."

Blumenauer, a longtime rail booster, says Oregon can only reach its carbon emission goals through large-scale infrastructure projects that reduce reliance on cars. That means putting Vancouver-to-Portland commuters on a train.

"You cannot satisfy the demand for a low carbon future if it's simply going to be automobiles, even if you're going to provide more bike and pedestrian access. It has to have rail, and I'm convinced it will," Blumenauer says.

Biden's proposed infrastructure plan is currently priced at $2 trillion. Under the plan, $12.3 billion would be allocated annually for transit improvements. U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and is well positioned to steer some of those dollars toward the Columbia.

Blumenauer, who speaks with DeFazio several times a week, says no bridge will be built without light rail.

"I've been talking and, in fact, working for a rail across the Columbia River for 30 years. We came close but not quite. To have a major investment that does not tie into this multibillion-dollar regional system would be lunacy," Blumenauer says. "It will not be approved without it. It's not just me. The federal government won't do that."

Listen to Blumenauer's full remarks in this video:

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