If the CRC is dead, why are state officials still seeking permission to build it?

About 25 opponents of the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing raised their drinks at Produce Row's bar July 12 to celebrate the megaproject's death.

The happy hour included activists, economists and business people who clinked glasses and gave away door prizes, including a "Build That Bridge" button once handed out by the project's many backers.

Maybe they should have checked the CRC's pulse first.

Even as the project's staff members clean out their desks, CRC officials are hoping to resurrect it from beyond the grave.

The $3.4 billion effort to expand Interstate 5 interchanges, replace the spans between Oregon and Washington, and bring light rail to downtown Vancouver purportedly died June 30 when the Washington Senate killed its funding.

Gov. John Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee immediately announced they were shutting down the project.

But interviews and records show CRC officials are still pursuing the state and federal permits needed to build the bridge.

CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney confirmed the project isn't pulling any of its permit requests. She says Sept. 30 is the deadline the Oregon Legislature gave Washington lawmakers to deliver their half of the $900 million needed in state funding. That's also the date by which the Coast Guard is expected to answer whether spans with 116 feet of clearance would be high enough to allow river traffic through.

"It seems too soon to preclude anything from happening," Putney says.

Federal officials also say they still have hope the CRC can be revived. The CRC is still seeking to land $850 million from the Federal Transit Administration to fund the light-rail portion of the project. 

FTA administrator Peter Rogoff released a statement to WW in which he continued to praise the project's "economic and safety benefits."

"The U.S. Department of Transportation is disappointed with the current situation but is working with leadership in both states to determine what options remain available," Rogoff says.

CRC opponents, having put down their celebratory drinks, say they aren't surprised state officials are still pushing the project.

"The CRC folks and supporters think if they get these permits in place, they can put this on the shelf until next year," says Tom Buchele, a Lewis and Clark Law School professor whose endangered-species lawsuit against the CRC is still active. "It's really wishful thinking and a waste of public resources."

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, for example, was to review the CRC's plans to perform work in the Columbia River—such as building piers to hold up the new bridge.

But CRC officials have told the DEQ to keep working on the review, despite the public proclamations the project is dead.

"It lives, I guess, in some way, shape or form," says Courtney Brown, a DEQ employee working on the review. "They haven't said anything more beyond saying they don't want to withdraw the application."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Coast Guard is continuing to spend taxpayer money to work on permits for the bridge. 

"It is up to the applicant to determine how they want to move ahead," says Coast Guard spokeswoman Lisa Novak. "The Coast Guard will continue to review the bridge permit application while awaiting further information from the CRC.” 

So is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which must approve in-water work and changes to the Columbia's navigation channel.

"We haven't had much interaction with them on this since the first of July," says Army Corps spokeswoman Marci Johnson. "We have not received a withdrawal request for the permit."

Oregon and Washington taxpayers have already spent $172 million on planning for the CRC. Washington will have its employees out of the project by Sept. 1. Putney says about 35 of its 96 employees are still working in the CRC office.

"The governor's office, if they're serious and they meant what they said about closing it down, they should pull these permits and lawsuits," Buchele says. "Nobody should be wasting time on this project."

Kitzhaber's office insists the CRC office is closing down. However, spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki says Oregon is going to try and use the decade's worth of work on the CRC to see if traffic would be improved with upgrades to interchanges on the south side of the Columbia River. 

Buchele says it's just another sign that entrenched supporters are having a hard time letting go.

"There are some people in the CRC office," Buchele says, "who aren't going to stop this until they’re fired and the locks are changed.” 

WWeek 2015

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