Oregon House approves new Columbia River bridge

Oregon House approves new 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) — Efforts to replace a bridge connecting Portland with Vancouver, Wash., are headed toward speed bumps in the form of a familiar point of contention in the area — light rail.

A $3.4 billion plan to add lanes to the perpetually bottlenecked span over Interstate 5 sailed through the Oregon House on Monday, and the proposal, which Gov. John Kitzhaber supports, could clear the state Senate next week.

It will then be Washington state's turn to decide whether fund its share of the project, and political leaders in the area are divided.

"It would be a disaster for our county," said David Madore, a commissioner in Clark County, which includes Vancouver.

Madore's opposition centers on a plan to expand light rail service with the bridge. Madore says he supports an expanded vehicle bridge, but considers light rail a waste of money that could be better spent on roads and highways. He fears the metro Portland transit agency, TriMet, is trying to expand its tax base into Washington state.

"Clark County is not to be a parking lot for Portland or a bedroom community for Portland," he said. "Clark County is not Portland, and we'd like to be able to keep Clark County, Clark County."

Vancouver voters have signaled opposition to the light rail expansion plan as well, rejecting a new sales tax to help pay for such a project in November.

Light rail supporters, however, say that component is necessary to get federal transit funds for the project. Three Democratic lawmakers from Vancouver wrote Washington Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month backing the construction project, including light rail.

Opposition to the project goes beyond light rail. Critics of government spending question the cost of the project and neighborhood groups worry about the impact of pollution and congestion at other chokepoints on Interstate 5.

Still, there are powerful supporters, including the governors of Oregon and Washington and the mayor of Vancouver. Business groups are eager to speed the flow of freight through the I-5 corridor. And unions are looking forward to thousands of construction jobs.

"We've all got a responsibility to help future generations, our children, their children, just as we are benefiting from the infrastructure investments" made by earlier generations, said Democratic Rep. Tobias Read of Beaverton, one of the project's chief proponents. "We are coasting, in many ways, on the fumes of the investments that they made."

The existing bridges are a chokepoint for traffic on I-5 and are vulnerable to damage in a major earthquake. Severe traffic snarls are common when a section is lifted to allow tall river traffic to pass.

The $3.4 billion project would include two new double-decker bridges with five travel lanes in each direction — up from three — and space for pedestrians, bicyclists and light-rail trains. Oregon and Washington are each responsible for $450 million, with the federal government and toll revenue paying the rest.

Oregon lawmakers voted to sell bonds to cover the state's share of the project cost as long as certain conditions are met, including approval of funding from Washington state and the federal government and a U.S. Coast Guard permit.

Previous version of this story.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon House on Monday approved $450 million in bonds to help pay for new Interstate 5 and light-rail bridges connecting Portland and Vancouver across the Columbia River.

Lawmakers approved the funding despite complaints that it lacks a definitive revenue source to repay the bonds at a cost of about $28 million a year for three decades. Proponents say they'll use a federal highway fund windfall to cover the cost in the first three years and may seek a dedicated revenue source — like a hike in gas taxes or vehicle fees — as part of a large transportation package in 2015.

The House's 45-11 vote sends the measure to the Senate. Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber is a strong supporter of the project and his spokesman, Tim Raphael, said the governor would sign the bill.

Oregon will be able to sell bonds only if Washington state comes up with its own $450 million share, the federal government puts up more than $1 billion and the U.S. Coast Guard issues a permit.

The $3.4 billion project would include two new bridges for vehicles, pedestrians, bicyclists and light rail trains, along with new freeway interchanges on both sides of the river. Project designs call for two double-decker bridges with 10 highway travel lanes in each direction, up from six. Portland's MAX light-rail trains would be extended to downtown Vancouver.

The existing bridges are a chokepoint for traffic on I-5 and are vulnerable to damage in a major earthquake. The project has strong support from business groups that hope to speed the flow of freight into and out of ports in Portland and the Puget Sound and from unions looking forward to new construction jobs.

Vocal critics include light rail opponents, neighborhood activists concerned about traffic and pollution, and anti-tax advocates who question the need for the project and its funding. Residents of some North and Northeast Portland neighborhoods fear the project will just move congestion to another I-5 choke point at the Rose Quarter near downtown. Residents of neighborhoods farther east fear tolls on the new bridges will divert traffic to Interstate 205, the only other Columbia River crossing point in metro Portland.

Light rail has been a particularly contentious flashpoint. The budget relies on federal transit funding, and the Obama administration is interested in the project in part because it includes multiple modes of transportation. But light rail critics say it's far too expensive.

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