Bridge End

Oregon backers of the CRC think they've won the day. They haven't met Ann Rivers.

Rivers, a La Center Republican, has served in the Washington Legislature for a little more than two years. She understands power—Rivers has a political consulting business, running campaigns and lobbying for local schools.

But Rivers, 46, has quickly found herself the most prominent and perhaps most persuasive player in Olympia on the proposed $3.4 billion Columbia River Crossing.

She hates the project, even though she knows some residents of her Clark County district might benefit from the massive freeway bridge and light-rail. She knows the CRC has influential backers—business and labor unions, and that she will feel heat  when the time comes to stop the project.

"I will not be intimidated," she says.

She isn't alone. The Washington Senate appears united in its determination to stop the CRC, which recently rolled through the Oregon Legislature.

Other Clark County lawmakers have lined up in opposition as well, but Rivers has emerged as the leader of that opposition, unswayed by arguments that Oregon and Washington must build this project now.

"It's almost been like a timeshare sales pitch: 'If you don't buy now, by God, you'll never be able to get it at this price!'" Rivers says. "We need some sanity on this."

The CRC would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge between Oregon and Washington, expand nearby highway interchanges and extend TriMet's MAX to Vancouver. Backers say the project is needed to reduce freeway congestion and replace the aging spans.

The Oregon Legislature pushed through a $450 million CRC funding measure in just three weeks, backed by business and labor interests and powerful Democrats, including House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Two years ago, the notion that Washington would balk at the CRC while Oregon forged ahead was unthinkable. The state's Democrats back the project. And in 2012, Democrats held a majority of seats in the Senate.

The turning point, for the CRC and Rivers, came when two Democrats agreed to caucus with Republicans. That gave GOP senators control and, with it, the ability to stop the bridge.

Sen. Curtis King (R-Yakima), co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, says Rivers' engaging, conversational style of politics has made her a force behind putting the CRC on the Senate's radar.

“She’s a more quiet individual than some of the other legislators,” King says. “She gathers her information and  has the ability to articulate the reasons behind the way she votes or feels.”

Rivers grew up in Michigan and earned degrees in political science from Central Michigan University and natural sciences from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. She and her husband, Fred, who works in the pulp and paper industry, moved to Southwest Washington more than 20 years ago.

Rivers was first elected to the Washington House in 2010, was appointed to a Senate seat last year, and won the seat outright in November. She's campaigned on traditional GOP themes: shrinking government payrolls and reducing barriers to business. Above all, though, she's known for her opposition to the CRC.

Now Senate majority whip, Rivers says the project's costs aren't worth shaving only a minute off the rush-hour commute from Portland to Vancouver.

"This is not a project about congestion relief, not a project about freight mobility," Rivers says. "All those things were shells. It's about light rail."

Washington Democrats back the CRC: Gov. Jay Inslee, House leaders and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. But the feds won't commit money—including financing for light rail—until both states pony up their $450 million share.

Rivers has her own influential ally in King, the transportation committee co-chairman, who announced his committee won't approve the CRC. 

King and Rivers served on an oversight committee on the project. "The deeper we looked, the more questions we had," Rivers says. "We would wait and wait and wait, and never get the information we wanted."

Unlike Oregon, Washington has seen cost overruns, poor design and inaccurate tolling forecasts strike other transportation megaprojects in the state. Among the most recent: a 37 percent revenue decline on the SR 520 bridge near Seattle after tolling began in late 2011. 

A local legislator who supports the CRC, Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver), says she has most Senate Democrats on her side—and she needs only two Republican votes. "I don't yet feel that it's dead," Cleveland says. "I want to believe."

But Rivers says she won't let the opportunity to kill the CRC slip away. She's taken no chances, working her Senate colleagues on the issue and trying to keep her fellow Republicans together.

"My shoulders have gotten very broad and strong from being the only one saying, 'No, no, no,'" Rivers says. "And now others are beginning to join me.” 

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