Illustration by Jon Sperry

DEMURE, BEARDED, middle-aged Metro Councilor Robert Liberty may have just become the hero for Portland's rowdy anti-Columbia River Crossing activists. In early November, he quietly introduced an idea to the Metro Council that both critics and supporters of the new I-5 bridge say could effectively cut the legs out from under the controversial project.

The idea is an amendment to Metro's Regional Transportation Plan that would set an expiration date on Metro's support of the big bridge project. Metro signed off on the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project in 2008 and the CRC needs Metro's support to move forward. But the amendment says that unless federal, state, regional, and local governments have committed to funding the $2.6-3.6 billion project by September 1, 2011, Metro's support will sunset and all the CRC money will go toward "study of potential alternative investments in the corridor."

Environmental groups and green leaders oppose the 10-lane bridge and light rail link planned to replace the current six-lane I-5 bridge because they say it will lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions, sprawl, and more cars on the road. On November 5, three days after Liberty pitched his expiration date plan to Metro, five green organizations including the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and Coalition for a Livable Future demanded the CRC staff go back to the drawing board and come up with a more sustainable fix for the congested corridor ["Throw it Out," News, Nov 12].

Liberty insists he introduced the amendment with "good intentions." "It's not to kill the project, it's to force a discussion about the project. We don't really think it's realistic that we're going to be able to fund it," he says.

Liberty is frustrated to see "$1 million a month" spent on planning a project he believes will never materialize. "Even if it's a $3 billion project, we'll still need $700 million from the Oregon State Legislature," says Liberty, noting that this past year, Oregon legislators balked at allocating any funds for the CRC.

In a straw vote taken on November 17, the idea received overwhelming support—six thumbs up and one thumb sideways from Councilor Rex Burkholder. Metro Council President David Bragdon was one of the supporters. "I think it's an overdue question to ask what this project is going to cost. I think the timeline within Robert's proposal is very reasonable," says Bragdon.

But Environment Oregon advocate Brock Howell says that if Metro approves the idea, it could effectively kill the bridge project. Much of the money for the project's light rail line is supposed to come from a sales tax increase in the Vancouver, Washington region—notoriously anti-tax Vancouverites will vote on it in 2012 at the earliest. That vote would not line up with Metro's 2011 expiration date. "If Metro turns on the bridge, it's basically dead," says Howell.

Mayor Sam Adams spoke out against the expiration date measure at a Metro advisory meeting last week, saying a two-year deadline would make it difficult to get the facts he needs to make key decisions about the bridge. "There are a lot of legitimate concerns about the CRC project. Funding is one of them," Adams told the group, saying he had not received enough good, solid facts about the project to date.

At the same meeting, Adams secured an assurance from Metro that it would study the carbon impact of all new roads proposed in the region, including the CRC.

While their support is slipping locally, bridge backers seem to be getting a more positive reception in Salem. Last Thursday, November 19, CRC leaders pitched a slimmed-down version of the bridge to the state transportation committee legislators who specifically erased CRC funding from the state budget last year.

"Here is a project, where if we make the investment, brings up to 20,000 jobs," said Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett. "It will be a gift that keeps on giving."

"The question I get asked when I talk with my constituents about this is, 'When are we going to start building?'" North/Northeast Portland Representative Tina Kotek told the committee.

The Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation recently cut $650 million from the cost of the big bridge project, trimming the size of the planned bridge from 12 lanes to 10. Representative Nick Kahl, an outspoken CRC critic, seemed swayed by the reduction from a budget that formerly totaled $4.2 billion. "I'm becoming increasingly satisfied with the design of the bridge," said Kahl.

Representative Mike Schaufler went further. "It is criminal to delay, obstruct, deny, and prohibit this project from going forward," said Schaufler. "I'm done. I don't need another public meeting."