DAVE NEESON

AS THE COLUMBIA River Crossing (CRC) rolls toward the last deadline for public comment on the massive project, environmental critics are weighing a potential lawsuit against the $3.6 billion freeway expansion.

The project to replace the Interstate 5 link between Vancouver and Portland with a new 10-lane bridge released its Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) last week, closing in on the finish line after five years of contentious planning.

The FEIS includes a cost estimate for the bridge that's $147 million higher than recent official figures—meaning Oregon's share of the project's cost would rise to at least $597 million. However, an analysis released this summer by Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler argues that toll proceeds for the bridge are overly optimistic by 15 to 25 percent—potentially leaving the project an additional $468 million to $598 million short.

The public has 30 days to comment on the 4,000-page document detailing the specifics of the new bridge, the last chance for citizen input before backers try to secure federal funding.

But even as the time for public input ends, critics are gearing up for their next move.

"We're absolutely going to see legal challenges," says Chris Smith, editor of portlandtransport.org and a Portland planning commissioner, pointing to the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center (PEAC), a coalition of local green groups as a likely plaintiff. "They'll probably look at whether the project truly examined enough alternatives."

"While a decision hasn't been made about litigation, our concerns certainly haven't abated," says Mara Gross, policy director for PEAC member group Coalition for a Livable Future. Gross notes concerns about unrealistic toll revenue and the impact of four new freeway lanes on air quality.

Metro's council unanimously approved the FEIS on September 8, as the last of the local governments that needed to rubberstamp the analysis before it moved forward.

"Developing a proposal that satisfies the needs of both sides of the Columbia River has not been easy and it should not be surprising that there is some continuing criticism," writes Metro President Tom Hughes, via email.