Why the demise of the CRC is a victory for progressives

It’s been a nice hot weekend, so you can be pardoned if you missed the news, but the Washington Legislature adjourned without funding the Columbia River Crossing, As a result, both governors Inslee and Kitzhaber have essentially declared the project to be dead.

This is viewed by welcome news by various different groups: Conservatives opposed to the expansion of light rail, environmentalists opposed to the expansion of I-5, and good-government types outraged by the gross incompetence which has followed the project for the past decade, as well as the appearance of significant self-dealing by the project team (and a process that appears designed to force a preferred and pre-selected solution), all have reason to cheer. And it is Washington conservatives that we have to thank for killing the CRC (for now), as the Democratic political establishments in Salem, Olympia, and Washington DC were all behind this project, despite the objections from their fellows on the left.

But while many on the right are crowing about the outcome–the “crime train” won’t be bridging the moat between Portland and Vancouver, and the two governors were dealt a political defeat–the ultimate winners will likely be progressives, not the Tea Party right.

The reason why is after the jump.
The first thing that needs to be understood–is that for the CRC, dead probably doesn’t mean dead, as in “no project will ever be built”. A replacement/enhancement to the Interstate Bridge won’t occur for quite a few years; I’m assuming that the federal funds that were being made available will be instead given to someone else. However, the need for a replacement crossing in the corridor still exists–and assuming the US economy doesn’t go into the tank and stay there, future funding opportunities will be available. When, I don’t know–but if and when the region gets its stuff together (and hopefully produces a more reasonable proposal), there will be opportunities in the future.

And the demographic realities of the US suggests strongly that the political culture that develops CRC-2 may be more progressive than now.

  • Some of the strongest opposition to the project came from conservative residents of Clark County. Much of this opposition came about due to anti-transit attitudes from the older generation–who associate transit with crime and poverty. These folks are slowly growing old and dying; the young voters replacing them don’t have the same negative attitudes towards extensions of public transit. While I don’t expect that all of Clark County will warm to MAX any time soon, I do expect that in short order, conservatives will no longer have veto power over the project in the Washington Legislature.
  • By the same token, the younger generation tends to have a more libertarian lean and has far less loyalty to organized labor–and is less likely to view construction jobs and other claims of “economic development” as reason to do projects. Construction industry lobbying was a major factor in the development of the current CRC, and while I expect that to continue, I expect to see more scrutiny on such projects.
  • Cultural change within ODOT is also another factor. Over forty years ago, ODOT was formed in a reorganization of the old Oregon State Highway Department, but only recently are we witnessing the agency starting to take its multi-modal role seriously. A decade ago, an ODOT official essentially proclaimed that the agency would block any MAX extension across the Columbia unless attached to a freeway widening. Nowadays, the agency is showing signs that it considers alternative transportation as essential components of its mission, as opposed to add-ons it has to support to get highways built.

The bottom line is that the political circumstances that produced the current CRC–a highway megaproject with significant greenwashing–are changing. What a new CRC would look like, I’m not sure–I expect it to be a less ambitious project in any case. It might not even include light rail (though I would expect some rapid transit–possibly BRT–in any case). By killing the project, the next version of the CRC can start off with a clean slate, free from the burden of “we’ve spent all this time and money so we can’t quit now”. And when the project does get revisited, the politics will probably be far less in the favor of the concrete lobby.

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