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Capital Chatter: CRC lives again, sort of

Oregon legislative leaders have created a Joint Interim Committee on the Interstate 5 Bridge.

The ill-fated Columbia River Crossing rises again!

Well, sort of. Oregon legislative leaders have created a Joint Interim Committee on the Interstate 5 Bridge.

House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, avoiding calling it the CRC in the letter to the committee's co-chairs asking them to "reach out to your colleagues in Washington and schedule a meeting as soon as practicable to begin planning for a new effort to replace the I-5 Bridge across the Columbia River."

Neither did Kotek and Courtney employ the acronym that Gov. Kate Brown put forth this spring — IBR, or Interstate Bridge Project.

"CRC" came to symbolize bureaucratic bungling — and political stubbornness — in the same manner that "Cover Oregon" did. Gazillions of taxpayer dollars were spent with little to show. The CRC project crashed when Washington finally balked.

But now, Washington has signaled its readiness to go forward — apparently without any strings attached.

"Last time there were not only strings, there were ropes attached," President Courtney told me this week.

Replacing the antiquated Interstate Bridge — actually two bridges, one carrying northbound traffic on Interstate 5 and one for southbound traffic — is an economic and social imperative, serving not only urban and rural Oregon but also the entire West Coast.

The current bridges define "bottleneck." On the Portland side, traffic congestion near the bridge on I-5 and adjacent roads is so bad that some Southern Oregon companies ship their products through the Port of Oakland, Calif., instead of the Port of Portland.

"Have you ever driven on that bridge? Well, it's a mess," Courtney said. "How many years has it been that we have been talking about this."

Oregon's and Washington's political leaders do seem in alignment. Last time, Oregon insisted on including light rail, which was anathema to some in Vancouver. Plus there was a series of questionable design and spending decisions made by Oregon. (Ah, the resemblance to Cover Oregon. Some of my best friends worked on Cover Oregon. But I digress … .)

This is an opportune time for Oregon transportation projects because Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio chairs the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and has been pushing for national investments in roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Which, by the way, makes it even odder that Oregon's capital would back off from its own sorely needed third bridge. The potential financial stars were aligning with DeFazio as transportation chair in the U.S. House and Courtney continuing as Senate president. Yet earlier this year, the Salem City Council — to the disappointment of Salem Mayor Chuck Bennett and others — decided against proceeding with the Salem River Crossing across the Willamette River.

Like the Interstate Bridge in Portland, Salem has two traffic bridges across the Willamette, one eastbound into the main part of Salem and one westbound into West Salem, along with two lovely pedestrian bridges (one of which is named for Peter Courtney).

The vehicle bridges are a key but seismically suspect and oft-congested link between coastal and rural Oregon and Interstate 5. A third bridge, providing a faster connection with the freeway, is as much an economic necessity for these parts of rural Oregon as a new Interstate Bridge.

Regional officials have been striving for a third bridge since at least the 1970s, when I first started covering the issue. Salem has now ended its work toward the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Salem River Crossing Project, thereby upholding what civic leaders consider to be Salem's unfortunate reputation as "The City that Says No."

But even local support does not guarantee funding. At the last minute, the 2019 Legislature dropped funding for the next phases of the Newberg-Dundee bypass — another route to the coast — to the consternation of Reps. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, and Bill Post, R-Keizer, and others.

As for the Don't-Call-It-The-CRC Committee, Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, and Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, will chair that Joint Interim Committee on the Interstate 5 Bridge. The committee has equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans and senators and representatives.

The other Senate members are Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario; Denyc Boles, R-Salem; and Lew Frederick, D-Portland. The other House members are Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Tangent; Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay; and Noble.

What's in a name: Courtney likes Senate committees to be named for the issues they actually handle. For the interim until the 2020 Legislature convenes in February, he has renamed or reconstituted several committees.

For example, Housing is now Housing and Development; Rules is now Rules and Executive Appointments; and Workforce is Labor and Business.

He also added two committees — Mental Health, chaired by Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Wildfire Prevention and Recovery, chaired by Jeff Golden, D-Ashland. Courtney thought about naming a committee on poverty and homelessness.

Gone are the Joint Committee on Student Success, co-chaired by Roblan, and Campaign Finance, chaired by Golden.

Wildfire, Courtney said, "is a monster in Oregon. " He mused that a more accurate committee name might have been "The Inferno Committee."

Committees are where the public work gets done in the Oregon Legislature. The impact of mental illness so affects issues in other committees that Courtney felt that one committee should focus fulltime on its ramifications.

He long has been an advocate for mental health care, teaming 15 years ago with then-House Speaker Karen Minnis, R-Wood Village, to improve conditions at the Oregon State Hospital and get a new facility.

For many legislators, the recent work of the Student Success Committee was an eye-opener. Courtney said they expected to hear the most about class size and such. Instead, students and others pleaded for more school counselors, suicide prevention and mental health treatment.

"We learned — the hard way — that we've got problems that we never dreamed of," Courtney said. "Enough is enough."

The magnificent seven: The Oregon House now includes seven Republican women following the swearing-in of Vikki Breese-Iverson, a Prineville businesswoman, to fill the rest of Mike McLane's term. He resigned last month, following the conclusion of the 2019 Legislature, to become a circuit judge for Crook and Jefferson counties. Gov. Brown announced his appointment this spring.

Secretary of State Bev Clarno, who is from Central Oregon, administered the oath of office to Breese-Iverson in the House chamber and reminisced about having represented House District 55 herself and knowing Breese-Iverson's family through the years.

Like all House seats, District 55 will be up for election in 2020.

Another new Republican in the House is Raquel Moore-Green of Salem. She succeeds Sen. Boles, who was appointed to the Senate seat left vacant by the death this year of Jackie Winters.

I hadn't realized that when lawmakers change, their nameplates on the voting boards on each side of the House chamber must be replaced by hand. That change was part of the swearing-in ceremony for Breese-Iverson, as was the tradition of escorting her to desk on the House floor with its new nameplate.

Are hackers at work: Not so, according to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services. Since Aug. 31, state employees and residents have faced connectivity issues affecting some web services and internet-based phones.

"The intermittent connectivity issues were due to some unstable network infrastructure hardware; we don't believe there has been any nefarious activity," DAS spokeswoman Liz Craig told me in an email. "As of now, the system is stabilized, and we are working on a thorough root cause analysis.

"We have had some very dedicated and talented staff working around the clock on resolving these network issues. Oregonians should know we have a great team that is dedicated to them and ensuring they have access to the state services they rely upon."

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or Twitter.com/DickHughes.