Obama's initiative aims to fast-track CRC permitting process

Obama's initiative aims to fast-track CRC permitting process

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Local and state leaders say President Barack Obama's move to put the Columbia River Crossing on the short list of national projects will help move the project forward, but it doesn't mean the bridge will get done faster than expected.

Project leaders are hoping to start building the $3.5 billion replacement for the aging Interstate 5 Bridge that links Oregon and Washington by 2014.

But by including the CRC in his "We Can't Wait" initiative, the president is lighting a fire under federal agencies to speed up the federal permitting and review process to make it more efficient, more effective and more accountable.

The kinds of permitting and review processes that will be fast-tracked are when other agencies give their input on bridge plans. For example, when the U.S. Coast Guard told bridge builders the new bridge wasn’t the right height last spring.

"We submit our application then at the end of the year to the Coast Guard. They then have the clock ticking on the president's initiative to turn around their response to the permit application. That's when they have to hustle up and get their work done," said Washington Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond. "One of the things that's most critical is to make the financial decisions that gets us the federal transit grant, get tolling started so we have enough money to start with the bridge and landing portion, which is the first stage in getting the bridge replaced."

But the declaration doesn't come with any specific financial commitment and that's still the problem: How to pay for this mega-project.

"A third of it is going to come from our federal partners, a third of it is going to come from the people who use the bridge and a third of it is going to come from the states," said Patricia McCaig, liaison for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. "It's a pretty nice distribution of a way to spread the cost of investing in something that benefits both states, the entire West Coast, and, in fact, the nation, which is why it's a project of national significance."

So legislators in Oregon and Washington still need to work out how to come up with roughly $450 million from each side. Federal money now designated for the bridge will be available until 2014. After that the states may not have access to it.

The president did free up transportation money that had not been spent on other projects. The money comes to about $4 million for Washington and less than a million for Oregon, which will not be much help with a project like this.

Obama's declaration also included another project for the state of Washington that aims to provide faster train service on the southbound route from Seattle to Portland. The $89 million Point Defiance Bypass project will reroute passenger trains to another existing rail line to avoid conflict with rail freight traffic. The date for finalized permitting and review decisions would be by the end of this year.
Two other projects in North Dakota and Maine are also being expedited under the president's declaration.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.