U.S. transportation chief urges WA lawmakers on CRC funds

U.S. transportation chief urges WA lawmakers on CRC funds
Columbia River Crossing bridge design.

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood told Washington state lawmakers Wednesday that they must commit hundreds of millions of dollars toward the estimated $3.1 billion Columbia River Crossing project this year or risk losing up to $1.2 billion in federal support.

LaHood was in Washington state advocating for the project to replace the Interstate 5 bridge between Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash.

"We are ready to move this project along," LaHood told reporters after meeting with lawmakers. "We need the commitment of the Washington House and Senate to say that they're willing to put up several million dollars and commit to this project."

Gov. Jay Inslee's office later clarified that the state must put up $450 million for the project, payable over several years, to continue to lay claim to up to $1.2 billion in federal grants and low-interest loans, $850 million of which would go toward constructing light-rail service across the span.

Oregon recently approved $450 million toward the project, contingent on Washington state doing the same. Another roughly $1 billion would come from tolling.

"It is now or never for building a bridge across the Columbia River," Inslee said. "We either take action this year or there will not be action for more than a decade across the Columbia River."

Despite LaHood and Inslee's urgings, some state lawmakers remained unmoved in their opposition to the project. With a large anti-Columbia River Crossing sticker affixed to his lapel, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, told reporters that the proposed bridge is too low, should not include light rail and relies too much on tolls.

In particular, Benton said, the bridge's planned clearance of 116 feet above the water likely would cost the state 4,000 manufacturing jobs with three companies unable to move cargo and equipment under it.

"We all want a new bridge," Benton said. "That would be a bridge that is of a proper height, that won't affect river users, and a bridge that won't have light rail on it."

Previously, the bridge was planned to have a 95-foot clearance, but that was amended upward after the U.S. Coast Guard in October said that was not high enough. The Coast Guard is reviewing the current bridge plan and is expected to decide whether to grant a key permit by the end of September.

LaHood stressed that the plan is unique among large transportation projects across the country in both its inclusion of transit as well its potential for spurring economic activity throughout the region. LaHood, a former Republican congressman from Illinois who has served in his current role since 2009, said the project is a top transportation priority for the Obama administration.

"This is a project of national significance," LaHood said. "There is no other project like this in the country."

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AP writer Jonathan Kaminsky can be contacted at http://www.twitter.com/jekaminsky

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.