Another CRC hurdle: The Washington State Senate

Another CRC hurdle: The Washington State Senate »Play Video
FILE - In this, Aug. 4, 2011, file photo, taken in Vancouver, Wash., the Interstate 5 bridge spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. Click on the "Play video" button above to watch Sunday's "Your Voice, Your Vote." KATU's Steve Dunn interviews Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek about the Columbia River Crossing. (AP File Photo/Don Ryan)

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Earlier this month the state of Oregon signed off on replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge that spans the Columbia River from Portland to Vancouver, and it approved its share of the funding for the $3.4 billion project.

Before the project can get started, however, the state of Washington needs to approve its own funding for it. But at two town halls in Vancouver on Saturday it was clear the project, known as the Columbia River Crossing, is not yet a done deal.
 
The wild card of whether the project will proceed may be the state's Republican-controlled Senate.

"I think we have the (needed) 50 votes in the House," said Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, at a morning pro-CRC town hall meeting devoted entirely to the project. "I know that we have the governor's signature, so the question, of course, remains with (the Senate)."

With legislative passage of its own CRC bill and the signature by its governor, Oregon has said it will commit $450 million to fund the project if certain conditions are met. Meanwhile, the Democrats in Washington's House proposed a $10 billion transportation package last month that includes funding the state’s own $450-million share primarily by raising the state's gas tax.
 
But across town later in the day at a town hall hosted by Republicans, Sen. Don Benton and Rep. Paul Harris, the project got the cold shoulder. A sticking point for them and others is that the design puts light rail on the bridge and brings it to Vancouver from Portland.

In addition to each state sharing in the cost of the project, proponents are hoping for $850 million from the federal government to fund the light rail portion of it.

Benton said he believes the project has nothing to do with benefiting Washingtonians or creating an efficient transportation system; instead, "It's about bringing light rail into Vancouver," which, he says, will burden Clark County taxpayers.

Both Harris and Benton acknowledge that a transportation bill with CRC funding will likely pass out of the House, but they are hopeful that the Senate will kill it if that happens.

"The only block (to stop the project) is the Washington state Senate," Benton declared.

For her part, state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, also a participant in the pro-CRC town hall, said she'll work hard to get the bill passed in the Senate.

"I can confidently stand here before you today and say I've spoken to each and every one of our Democratic caucus members and each and every one has pledged their support for this project," she said. "So I'm looking for one additional key vote, and you can rest assure that will be my sole focus for the next eight weeks."

Extending light rail into Vancouver has ruffled a few feathers in Clark County, and last November voters in Vancouver defeated a new sales tax to help pay for it.

Proponents of the bridge are adamant, however, that the bridge can't be built without light rail because it will lose out on those federal funds.

"If you try to take light rail out of this project, the project is dead," said Kelly Parker, the president of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce during the morning town hall. "And if that is what this community thinks is important to kill this project and kill this bridge, that's the elephant in the room."

Nancy Boyd, Washington's project director for the CRC, said light rail is part of the design because "there are federal regulations that require us to examine how we can reduce the demand on the interstate system using transit as an alternative."

She added that through an extensive project study "it was determined that this facility requires a high-capacity transit alternative as a component of the project."

But Joe Cortright, an economist and president of Impresa, has raised questions about several aspects about the project, including light rail.

"Implicitly, what the advocates are saying, is somehow there's this pot of federal money - $850 million that's just waiting for this project, and that's just not true," he said during an interview. "This project would have to compete with a bunch of other projects for funding. It might not get all that amount of money, and if the federal government doesn't provide $850 million then the two states have to come up with the difference."

Proponents, however, argue that the project is at the top of the queue for federal transportation projects and if the states don't act now, they risk losing the money.

After Washington's Gov. Jay Inslee met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood recently, "the message he came back with after meeting with (him) is that if we don't do this right away, we'll probably never get the $850 million again," said Inslee spokesman David Postman during an interview. "There will be another state that jumps in line and embraces that money and takes it for another project somewhere else."

Postman said the governor is open to hiking the state's gas tax.

"What he has said consistently is in funding a smart transportation plan, no funding source should be off the table, and certainly a gas tax has always been a part of that and is something he says the Legislature should look at to fund this," he said.

As for Oregon, some lawmakers are still uneasy because they say an actual funding source hasn't been defined to repay the bonds over the next 30 years.

Where the state would get its money to pay for the project was a question that KATU’s Steve Dunn posed to Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, during Sunday's "Your Voice, Your Vote." (Watch the show by clicking on the "Play Video" button above.)

"We will issue $450 million in bonds and for the first couple of years of the bonding that would be there, we're going to be using existing dollars to cover the debt service, because we thought it was prudent to not go and talk about raising new revenue for this project until we know what the state of Washington is doing," she said.

She stressed the "triggers" Oregon lawmakers wrote into the legislation to prevent the state from issuing those bonds before certain conditions are met.

"So in the bill, it says, we'll issue bonds if the state of Washington does their part, if the federal government steps up and does its part, if the Coast Guard gives us a bridge permit, which we do need, (and) if the treasurer does the study that we need to say we have the dollars to do the project," she said.
 
All those things are still question marks and in addition to some Washingtonians having issues with light rail, proponents and opponents there are in disagreement about tolling the bridge, which is also part of how the new one will be funded.

Proponents of a new bridge cite congestion, safety issues and the real possibility of a major earthquake taking down the current bridge as reasons for building a new one.