Oregon lawmakers probe CRC solo plan during hearing

Oregon lawmakers probe CRC solo plan during hearing
In this Aug. 4, 2011, file photo, taken in Portland, Ore., traffic crosses the Interstate 5 bridge spanning the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, file)

SALEM, Ore. -- Some Oregon lawmakers are balking at Gov.John Kitzhaber's plan to go ahead with a new interstate bridge over the Columbia River, now that lawmakers in Olympia have backed out of the Columbia River Crossing project.

The Oregon Legislature's 2014 session is scheduled to begin in early February, and Tuesday's hearing at the state Capitol could have a big impact on what lawmakers decide to do about the multibillion dollar project.

Supporters want the Legislature to reauthorize the state's $450 million contribution.

"I think it's really, really tough to have a bi-state project where you only have one state Legislature that's engaged and involved," said Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, the co-vice chair of the Joint Committee on Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement. "It's really problematic."

Debt backed by revenue from bridge tolls is expected to cover half the cost of the $2.8 billion project. The federal government would chip in $850 million to add a light rail line to the bridge.

Supporters say a $2.50 toll would be low enough to not discourage drivers from using the bridge, but high enough to cover the costs as they stand now. But if anything changed, Oregonians would likely be on the hook for the difference.

Several lawmakers were skeptical.
"How do you think we would feel and our constituents would feel" if Washington built a project in Oregon after the Legislature declined to support it, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, asked state transportation officials.

There are some plans to eliminate freeway interchange improvements on the Vancouver end of the bridge to reduce the overall cost. But Oregon would still have to get Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's cooperation to acquire land on the north end of the bridge, and to enforce sanctions against Washington drivers who skip out on tolls.

Oregon officials have been working with counterparts in the Washington attorney general's office and the Department of Licensing to draft contracts, agreements and rules necessary to make it work should Oregon lawmakers choose to go forward, said Oregon Assistant Attorney General Ethan Hasenstein.

Starr believes, if the Columbia River Crossing comes to a vote in the 2014 session, it will have less support than it did last year, when Washington was still involved. But he's not willing to venture a guess as to whether it will pass a second time.

"I honestly don't know. I do know that legislators who are engaged in this conversation will ask the very difficult questions, the tough questions, " Starr said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.