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VANCOUVER, Wash. — As the Columbia River Crossing lurches forward, a small group of advocates is making a renewed push to promote an idea it says could work better for a lower cost.

Jim Howell is one of the architects behind the “Common Sense Alternative,” which focuses less on freeway expansion and more on smaller fixes and a local connection between Vancouver and Portland.

As proposed, the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail to Vancouver’s Clark College and rebuild five miles of freeway. The project is looking to secure state funding from both the Washington and Oregon legislatures this year, and hopes to begin construction in late 2014.

The option championed by Howell goes like this:

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Modify the BNSF Railway bridge just downstream of Interstate 5. Moving the railroad’s swing span toward the middle of the river (it’s now near the north bank) would eliminate the need for most I-5 Bridge lifts, he said.

By lining up the rail bridge’s opening with the hump of the I-5 Bridge, vessels could take a straight shot under both spans without the S-curve or I-5 Bridge lift they need now, Howell said.

The proposal would also build a new drawbridge from Vancouver’s Columbia Street carrying local traffic — and light rail — between Vancouver and Hayden Island. The extra crossing would eliminate the need for the freeway onramps at Hayden Island and state Highway 14 that are responsible for much of the backups around the I-5 Bridge, Howell said.

This phase one would cost about $700 million.

A later phase could replace the existing I-5 Bridge and build another multimodal bridge near the railroad span for passenger rail, freight trucks and other traffic.

Iterations of the Common Sense Alternative have floated around for years, including one that landed in a YouTube video in 2011. Howell believes the proposal still has a good chance of getting traction, particularly if the CRC runs into snags over funding and bridge height.

For its part, the CRC has indicated it’s well past the point of considering other proposals. Local leaders approved the project’s preferred alternative in 2008. A final environmental-impact statement was published and approved in 2011.

Howell and others behind the “Common Sense” plan are light-rail supporters, which won’t win them the favor of many CRC foes.

But Howell, a retired architect and former TriMet employee, said the proposal would initially carry light rail only as far as Fifth Street in downtown Vancouver. That would give residents a “taste” of the system, and a chance for it to work, he said.

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