Oregon Senate approves Columbia River bridge

Oregon Senate approves Columbia River bridge
FILE - In this Aug. 4, 2011, file photo, taken in Portland, Ore., the Interstate 5 bridge spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, file)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Senate on Monday approved $450 million in bonds to help pay for two new side-by-side Interstate 5 bridges over the Columbia River following nearly two decades of discussions in Oregon and Washington over replacing twin bridges that are aged and become bottlenecks as traffic has increased over the years.

The Senate's bipartisan 18-11 vote sends the message to Washington state and Washington D.C. that Oregon is ready to move ahead.

Oregon will be able to sell the bonds only if Washington state comes up with its $450 million share, the federal government agrees to contribute more than $1 billion and the U.S. Coast Guard issues building permits by Sept. 30, 2013.

There is skepticism in Washington state over the costs of the project and using the new spans to extend light rail from Portland to Vancouver.

Some Oregon senators also had qualms, including concerns that the plan lacks a definitive revenue source to repay the bonds. Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton, who voted for the plan, pressed the bill's sponsors for assurance that all the requirements would be met before any state money would be spent.

Still, there are enthusiastic supporters of the project in the Oregon Legislature who say the current structures must be replaced and now is the time to do it.

"We're committed to building a safe river crossing for cars, bikes, pedestrians and light rail," said Democratic Sen. Lee Beyer, of Springfield, a sponsor of the bill. "Replacing the bridge will create jobs and secure long-lasting economic advantages for the region into the future."

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, who strongly supports the proposal, said in a press release Monday that he will sign the bill.

"The vote in the Senate today is an important step forward for our state and the Pacific Northwest economy," Kitzhaber said. "By investing in a safe and effective transportation system for Oregon, we are providing a safer and less congested trip for freight and commuters."

The proposed new crossing, which right now has a price tag of $3.4 billion, would consist of twin bridges that each have two decks: an upper deck for cars and trucks; a lower deck for light rail, bikes and pedestrians. The project also includes new bridge and freeway interchanges on both sides of the river.

The existing crossing consists of two side-by-side bridges. The northbound bridge was built in 1917, and the southbound bridge was built in 1958. The current structures become swollen with traffic, and experts say they are vulnerable to damage in the event of a major earthquake. The current spans have narrow paths for cyclists and pedestrians.

The project has forged a rare alliance between business groups that hope to speed the flow of freight into and out of ports in Portland and Puget Sound and labor unions looking forward to constructions jobs.

It will cost Oregon taxpayers roughly $30 million per year for three decades to pay down the bridge debt.

Funding for the project will come from three main sources, including $450 million from both Oregon and Washington, federal transit money and tolling fees paid by bridge users.

Managers of the Columbia River Crossing Project released new projections last week that found tolling could produce between $1.07 billion and $1.75 billion, marginally more than the previous estimate of between $900 million and $1.3 billion. The toll rate has not been determined yet.

In Washington, the path to approve funding for the Columbia River Crossing is less certain because of concerns over the light rail extension, tolling and a proposed gas tax.

In November, Vancouver voters rejected a new sales tax to help pay for the light rail extension.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.