In his 22 years as a Washington state legislator, Don Benton was never one to shy away from expressing his opinion about any issue that impacted residents of Clark County, specifically those he represented in the 17th district.
Last year, Benton elected not to seek re-election to his seat in the Washington state senate. Recently, he accepted a position as senior advisor to President Donald Trump, spending long hours in Washington, DC, helping the Trump administration by overseeing the transition at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Despite the fact that Benton is no longer an elected official in the state of Washington, he still keeps an eye on Clark County, where he maintains a home and continues to have an informed perspective on issues that matter most to area residents.
“It’s my county too,’’ Benton told ClarkCountyToday.com. “I live there and I have to put up with what takes place there.’’
An issue Benton has long been passionate about is transportation congestion in Clark County. He was a key opponent in the fight against the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC), rallying his fellow state senators to vote against the project in 2014.
“I’ve done my homework many times over on this particular issue,’’ Benton said.
The Columbian Newspaper recently reported that Benton had contacted some of his former colleagues in the area to remind them of his thoughts on Clark County’s transportation issues, specifically the efforts of the elected officials supporting Senate Bill 5806 and House Bill 2095, the companion bills prioritizing the replacement of the I-5 bridge.
Benton admitted to ClarkCountyToday.com that he had personal communication with three elected officials from the area.
“None of it has anything to do with me working for the president or my current job,’’ Benton said. “It has everything to do with me living in Clark County. I have many friends and a lot of people I care very deeply about who will very much be affected by those crazy notions and that’s why I’m very vocal about it.
“The fact of the matter is that I texted my state senator,’’ said Benton, referring to Lynda Wilson, who filled Benton’s former seat in the state senate. “I am a constituent of the 17th District. I texted my state senator my disapproval. It was a polite text. I said, ‘I am very disappointed in your support of this project. No good can come of it for you or our citizens.’
“I think it is extremely unethical, off the charts unethical, for her to share a personal text with a newspaper,’’ Benton said. “She had no business sharing that. I was speaking with my representative and senators as a constituent not as an employee of the federal government. That’s not my role. I did it solely as a constituent. There was no threat in the text whatsoever. It was just a statement of disappointment as my representative that Lynda could support something like that.’’
I-5 bridge replacement shouldn’t be a priority
Removing the politics from the discussion, Benton is passionate that the replacement of the I-5 bridge should not be the priority of area lawmakers.
“If you take all the political interests out of it, it makes no sense, none!’’ Benton said of prioritizing the I-5 bridge replacement as a solution to Clark County’s traffic congestion problems. “Politicians aren’t always necessarily trying to solve the problem. They will tell you they are, but that doesn’t mean they really are. There’s some other type of motivation most of the time.’’
Sens. Annette Cleveland (D-49th District), Ann Rivers (R-18th District) and Lynda Wilson (R-17th District) are the local lawmakers who have co-sponsored SB 5806. Reps. Paul Harris (R-17th District), Monica Stonier (D-49th District), Brandon Vick (R-18th District) and Sharon Wylie (D-49th District) are the local legislators who have co-sponsored the companion HB 2095. SB 5806 passed the senate floor last week and HB 2095 passed the house floor Monday.
“I’ve never been one to mince words on this subject,’’ Benton said. “Any elected representative who would continue to allocate more money to a project that already poured $170 million down the rabbit hole should lose their next election. That’s pretty harsh, but that’s how I feel.
“The Columbia River Crossing is as big a fiasco as anything we’ve seen in the state of Washington,’’ Benton said. “Anybody who continues to vote to spend more money on that is clearly not operating in the best interests of their constituents. The CRC was nothing more than a facade to bring light rail into Vancouver. That was the whole purpose of it. Oregon needed to bring light rail into Vancouver to save their bankrupt system (TriMet). It was never about congestion.’’
Benton emphatically stated that there is currently no urgency to replace the I-5 bridge, which he said doesn’t appear on the lists of deficient bridges by either the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) or Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT).
“There is nothing wrong with the bridge,’’ Benton said. “The bridge does not appear on ODOT’s or WSDOT’s lists of deficient bridges. There is nothing deficient about that bridge, or ODOT and WSDOT would list it.’’
Benton pointed out that the CRC project would have decreased the commute from Vancouver to downtown Portland by less than a minute.
“It was very clear your commute from Vancouver to downtown Portland would have decreased by 59 seconds at best,’’ he said. “There are no plans to add additional lanes on either side of the bridge so it makes no sense. You can build a bridge with 10 lanes each way but if they are forced to squeeze back down to three lanes when you get back on land, what have you accomplished?
“How could anyone thinking clearly believe that is a good investment?’’ said Benton, referring to an I-5 bridge replacement. “The only people who believe that is a good investment are the people who own property along the line where they were going to put light rail. It’s a shame our elected representatives can’t see that.’’
Benton praises Pike, Kraft
Benton applauded Reps. Liz Pike (R-18th District) and Vicki Kraft (R-17th District) for not signing on to the bills prioritizing an I-5 bridge replacement. Pike authored HB 1222 (which Kraft supported). Pike’s bill would have created a bi-partisan, bi-state committee to consider all solutions to Clark County’s traffic congestion and both representatives favor a third, if not a fourth, crossing prior to the consideration of an I-5 bridge replacement. Pike’s bill did not make it out of the house’s transportation committee.
“Thank goodness for Vicki Kraft and Liz Pike,’’ Benton said. “They understand what is going on. Clearly, they represent the citizens rather than the special interests who stand to make a fortune off that light rail system.’’
Benton cited a number of studies that said a light rail system into Vancouver would reduce traffic congestion only by a small percentage.
“We know for a fact that light rail could remove a maximum of 3 percent of the daily trips,’’ Benton said. “So, even with light rail, you still have no congestion relief. So, what’s the benefit? The benefit is to the special interests.’’
“When things seem illogical, you have to follow the money,’’ Benton said. “I have done that. Others have done that. What we have found is people who are supporting these projects stand to make millions of dollars off of them. You don’t have to look very far to figure out something stinks. Portland has 11 bridges over the Willamette (River). Why is Vancouver allowed to have only two over the Columbia?
“Spending even one more dollar of the taxpayers’ dime discussing the replacement of the I-5 bridge is taking away from the real solution to Clark County’s congestion relief,’’ Benton said. “We need more crossings across the Columbia River, not just one, we need two additional crossings. We should have been talking about this five, 10 years ago instead of wasting our time on a project that only benefits a special few.’’
Tolls and taxes
Benton pointed out that 65,000 Clark County residents commute to Oregon each week for employment. He doesn’t want to see them pay tolls on a project to replace the I-5 bridge.
“Clark County is the fifth largest taxing district in the state of Oregon, the only problem is we’re not in the state of Oregon,’’ Benton said. “I think it adds insult to injury to say to those people who are already paying income tax in Oregon, that you have to pay another $5 or $6 in tolls every day to get back and forth to work.
“I’m upset because I live there,’’ Benton said. “My family will have to pay the tolls. I don’t think it’s right that citizens would have to pay twice for the same improvement. To put tolls on them is charging citizens twice for the same project. The citizens of Clark County have said three times, quite clearly, ‘we don’t want light rail and we don’t want to pay tolls.’’’
Benton pointed out that if Clark County citizens are forced to pay tolls for a project similar to the CRC, there’s only one place that money can come from.
“They won’t be increasing their income, so where does the money come from?’’ he asked rhetorically. “It must come from discretionary spending. Now you’re paying another $120 bucks a month to go back and forth to work.’’
And, if Clark County residents are paying that for tolls, they’re not spending that on other taxable items in their home county.
“Those things have sales tax,’’ Benton said. “I don’t think the city of Vancouver, Clark County, city of Camas, etc. have thought through the fact that they are going to lose a tremendous amount of sales tax revenue to tolls from people who go back and forth to Oregon.
“It’s very shortsighted,’’ he said. “There is no tax revenue from the tolls, that money goes strictly to the tolling company. I have thought about those things and what they mean for all citizens of Clark County. Whether you commute over there (Oregon) or not, those (Clark County) municipalities are going to have to raise your taxes to compensate for that loss in revenue.’’
Benton offers a solution
Benton said there is a simple, and somewhat cheap, plan that would help tremendously with Clark County’s traffic congestion.
“Fixing the railroad bridge,’’ said Benton, referring to the railroad bridge that crosses the Columbia River just west of the I-5 bridge. “The biggest problem with congestion is when the I-5 bridge has to lift. If you could stop 99 percent of those bridge lifts, you could eliminate a lot of the congestion on the roadway.’’
Benton points out that both the I-5 bridge and the railroad bridge open close to the Vancouver shore. So, when the railroad bridge opens, the I-5 bridge has to lift, even though he states that most vessels that travel through the area can fit under the higher middle section of the I-5 bridge.
“The railroad bridge has to open for almost every vessel,’’ Benton said. “Most vessels can go under the center of the I-5 bridge without raising the lift. On most days with good weather, a barge can go through the center portion of the I-5 bridge and then move closer to the shore to go through the railroad bridge. When the weather is poor, there isn’t enough room for those vessels to make that turn so they have to open the I-5 bridge lift.
“It would cost $50 million to move the opening on the railroad bridge to a center-point pivot so those ships could go through the center portion of the I-5 bridge and then continue through the center of the railroad bridge,’’ he said.
Benton acknowledged there are some vessels that travel through the channel that are too high to go under the center of the I-5 bridge, “that’s why I say it would eliminate 99 percent of the bridge lifts on the I-5 bridge.’’
“I was in the state legislature for 22 years,’’ Benton said. “I’ve studied this project for years and years and years. The bottom line is, we need to fix the railroad bridge and build another bridge across the Columbia River. That’s where the focus needs to be. We should have been looking at other corridors years ago. It’s very frustrating to me and very dishonest to the citizens of Clark County. That is my personal opinion but it is a very learned and experienced opinion on this subject matter.’’