Last-ditch Oregon-only CRC plan faces hurdles

Last-ditch Oregon-only CRC plan faces hurdles
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2011, file photo, made in Portland, Ore., the Interstate 5 bridge spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber practically declared it dead more than a month ago, but the push to extend Portland's light rail into Washington state and replace several miles of Interstate 5 isn't lifeless.

The powerful forces in Oregon that want to see the project go forward — unions, business groups, the governor, the state House speaker — refuse to give up on it.

But their last-ditch effort to build the Columbia River Crossing project without dollars from Washington state faces quite a few roadblocks. Some of the Oregon lawmakers who supported it earlier this year are taking heat back home, and it's not even clear whether it's legally or financially possible.

"I am under no illusions about the weight of this lift," Kitzhaber wrote Wednesday in a letter to Oregon legislative leaders. "Perhaps we do not have the time, or the will, or a feasible pathway to get this project done. But the fact is, the need remains."

Until this summer, project backers were pushing a $3.4 billion freeway and light-rail project that would have replaced two aging bridges carrying Interstate 5 across the Columbia River, widened freeways on both sides and extended Portland's light-rail to Clark College in Vancouver, Wash.

Oregon lawmakers this year voted to commit $450 million to the project on the condition that Washington did the same, and the rest of the funding was to come from tolls and the federal government. The Washington House approved a transportation package this summer that included money for their state's $450 million share, but the Senate never took a vote before adjourning in June.

Kitzhaber said at the time that "neither state can incur the further costs of delay" and that project managers would begin closing down their offices, though he pledged to continue looking into options Oregon could pursue on its own.

Project backers are now pitching a scaled-back version that could be funded without a contribution from Washington. It's essentially the same as the earlier proposal, but the freeway improvements would stop at State Route 14 in Vancouver. Light rail would still continue to Clark College, paid for by the Federal Transit Administration.

The total cost would be $2.75 billion, project backers say. The price includes $130 million for the interchange with SR 14 in Washington. It doesn't include $86 million Oregon has agreed to pay three upriver manufacturers that ship products that are too big to fit beneath the proposed bridge.

Kitzhaber has asked the Oregon departments of Transportation and Justice to evaluate issues surrounding the latest proposal and report back by Sept. 15. He hopes the information will help lawmakers decide whether it's a viable option by Sept. 30.

In an Aug. 19 letter to Patricia McCaig, a senior project official and Kitzhaber adviser, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler said proceeding without Washington money would increase the risk for Oregon taxpayers. He asked for documentation and laid out a long list of questions for project planners.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee supports a careful review of the proposal, said spokesman David Postman. Even without state funding, Vancouver commuters and other Washington drivers who use the bridge would still be contributing to the cost, he said, so it's not an Oregon-only project.

"Under the conversations the two governors had, it's always envisioned as a bistate project," Postman said. "It literally bridges the two states, and nobody's ever suggested it should be the sole responsibility of one or the other."

Project officials hope Washington would eventually come through with funding to finish all the freeway improvements that were initially envisioned. If not, by 2030 traffic in both directions would bottleneck at Mill Plain Boulevard in Vancouver, the first interchange that would be left unimproved. Project spokeswoman Mandy Putney said the bottlenecks would still be less severe than those caused by the existing bridge.

The Oregon House backed funding for the initial proposal in a 45-11 in February, and the Senate followed with an 18-11 vote. But the decisions came only after lawmakers inserted a caveat saying Oregon can only spend money if Washington does.

"A 'go-it-alone' plan isn't in Oregon's best interest and it's definitely a tough sell," said Rep. Mike McLane, the Republican leader in the House who initially voted for the proposal . "Washington is our partner and now isn't the time to go around them."

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