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‘Crossing’ to a Consortium: Oregon and Washington legislators confer in summit

The Columbia Gorge Consortium invited lawmakers from Olympia and Salem who represent districts in the Columbia River Gorge to attend a bi-state legislative summit Friday, May 16 in White Salmon. Five legislators were on hand for the occasion.

Washington Rep. Liz Pike and Washington State Sen. Curtis King attended, along with Oregon Representatives Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, and John Huffman, R-The Dalles, and Oregon State Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River. The purpose of the meeting was to educate lawmakers on issues of common concern in our region, among them infrastructure, transportation, housing, education, tourism and recreation.

The legislators began their day with a bus tour of the western Columbia River Gorge on both sides of the Columbia, then gathered with local elected officials, organizational and agency representatives at the White Salmon Pioneer Center for a two-hour discussion on those local issues.

Washington State Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, who sits on the Transportation Committee, said she was very pleased to meet Huffman in person, as they had been exchanging emails and phone calls for months. And she noted that she and Huffman were forming a bi-state bridge coalition “out of the ashes of the now-defunct Columbia River Crossing. Our hope is to build relationships between Oregon and Washington in the legislatures and come up with some solutions that we think our citizens can get behind, and build some bridges together to continue the Economic Development and the ties that we share.”

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima said the state needs to fix the problems with state transportation efforts before it funds them. “We have had error after error after error at Washington State DOT,” King said. “If you look at just two of those instances — the 520 bridge and the bored tunnel that is not boring — with the amount of money we’re going to spend over the original cost of them, you could replace the Hood River Bridge and the Bridge of the Gods. Think about that. You could replace both of those bridges and think of the economic impact that would have on this region.”

Huffman noted there were other infrastructure issues on both sides of the Columbia that both legislatures need to address, and said “Hopefully, this is the first of many meetings of getting Oregon and Washington legislators together in the Gorge to talk about Gorge business and Gorge needs and see what we can do in Salem and Olympia to get work done for you.”

Johnson and Thomsen also spoke, stressing cooperation and the need to restore funding for the Columbia River Gorge Commission cut by the two state legislatures in previous years. Thomsen noted there are cities in the Gorge looking to expand their urban area boundary, and they can’t do that when the Gorge Commission budget is so low that it has placed a moratorium on accepting any such requests since January 2009.

The Columbia Gorge Consortium is a cooperative effort of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, Mid-Columbia Housing Authority, Mid-Columbia Council of Governments, Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, and Columbia Gorge Community College.

Representatives of those organizations also outlined the current situation in the Gorge and the hopes for the future. One notable remark came from Columbia Gorge Community College President Frank Toda, who reminded local residents that the college’s Gorge Scholars program provides free tuition for two years to any local high school graduate who has a 3.5 cumulative grade point average and enrolls full time. The offer, he stressed, is not just for Oregon schools.

Qualifying Klickitat County schools include high schools in Bickleton, White Salmon, Goldendale, Klickitat, Lyle, and Wishram as well as Goldendale Christian School and home-schooled students living in those districts.

Toda also said the community college has seen interest from some four-year colleges in expanding the program by making the same offer for the junior and senior years at their institutions, but nothing has been finalized yet.

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