photo by Matt Davis

AFTER YEARS OF steamrolling steadily in the same direction, the controversial Columbia River Crossing (CRC) plan has hit gridlock. Leaders of the I-5 bridge replacement project clearly split last Friday, December 4, during a packed public meeting discussing $650 million in cuts to the project. The $2.6-3.6 billion bridge cannot move forward until its drivers agree, but those at the wheel are steering in two different directions.

Drawing up serious plans for the 10-lane bridge to Vancouver means creating jobs in construction industries hard hit by the recession. But two of the 10 members of the Project Sponsors Council (the bridge steering committee) believe the current design is too expensive and environmentally unsound.

Lame-duck Vancouver Mayor Royce Pollard did not mince words at last week's Project Sponsors Council showdown, displaying disgust over the project delays.

"Everybody seems to be kind of sitting on their hands," griped Pollard. "Portland said [they] want light rail and tolls. You're getting it. Vancouver said we want 12 lanes. What the hell do we get out of this deal?"

Metro President David Bragdon spoke just as freely from the opposite end of the spectrum, calling for a new environmental impact statement and smaller budget. "I cannot vote for any more blank checks on this project because, frankly, I've seen what happens," said Bragdon.

Mayor Sam Adams dove into the divisive discussion on the slim-down side, saying he has come to fear that if the federal government allocates the millions of dollars requested for the CRC, Portland will not get funding for "any other transportation project in this region for a long time."

Harsh public testimony from dozens of Hayden Island residents and green-thinking groups at the meeting helped bolster Adams' and Bragdon's critical platform. Hayden Island residents are upset that the revised bridge design drops the freeway onto their island's commercial center, wiping out a Safeway and what neighbors estimate as over 30 businesses.

Before the meeting began, big bridge opponents stood on the chilly street corner outside the Port of Portland building on NW 2nd and Everett, waving a banner emblazoned with the phrase: "New CRC, Same Ol' Problems."

But when the protestors tried to head inside, a hired security guard turned many away, curtly explaining that no protest signs were allowed in the meeting.

"Isn't this a public meeting?" asked an exasperated organizer, Shannon Palermo.

"Public meeting, private property," replied the guard, bouncing anyone who held even a small protest sign.

Port of Portland spokesperson Martha Richmond says that though the Port has no across-the-board policy on signs at its meetings, the Port asked security to limit large protest signs at Friday's meeting out of concerns for "safety hazards in a crowded space." "We wanted the meeting to go as [the CRC sponsors] wanted it in terms of decorum and safety," says Richmond. "The security's actions may have gone beyond what we intended."

Critics like Portland Planning Commissioner Chris Smith said the security guard "manipulated citizen input and free speech."

Avoiding a straight up-or-down vote on the new bridge, which would certainly have split the powerful council, the bigwigs decided to discuss the issue again in a month. Between now and January, critics like Adams and Bragdon are going to have to hustle to find a compromise that their build-it-big peers can agree on.

"There is no real consensus, which in my opinion is a good thing, because for a while it looked like they would have consensus in the wrong direction," says Smith. If the politicians and transportation departments can't agree on divisive issues like tolling, predicts Smith, "the project could collapse under its own weight."

Whether or not the current gridlock will kill the whole project is up for debate.

"Freight and trade unions form a formidable alliance... I can't imagine the project is just going to die on the vine," says Rich Rodgers, a Blue Oregon blogger who formerly served as policy advisor to former City Commissioner Erik Sten. "It seems clear to me that Sam and David have been successful at bringing things to a halt. If I were advising an official, I would try to find a compromise."