Regional News

Columbia Bridge Fate Rests With Washington State Lawmakers

SAN FRANCISCO – The Columbia River Crossing project, a $3.4 billion plan to replace the aged Interstate 5 bridges connecting Portland, Ore. and Vancouver, Wash., could hit a major roadblock if Washington lawmakers balk at contributing money.

In March, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber signed legislation committing the state to its $450 million share of the project, which would not only replace the I-5 crossing, but also upgrade five miles of the highway, extend Portland’s light rail system across the river and state line into downtown Vancouver, and improve facilities for bicyclists and pedestrians.

The crossing would also be funded by at least $1 billion in toll-backed bonds, along with federal and the state money.

Now everyone is waiting for Washington lawmakers to take similar steps. But there have been hiccups.

The money was to have been part of a transportation-funding package that the Legislature passed during its regular session. That never happened during the 105-day session.

Now newly-elected Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has called a special session to start May 13 and is trying to rope in some wary lawmakers to approve the bridge project money.

“The governor is very adamant about the legislation moving forward on the transportation package this session that would include funding for [the CRC] project,” said Jaime Smith, a spokesperson for Inslee. “We do have a very tight window that is closing if we don’t approve that funding this year.”

Oregon’s funding is contingent on Washington’s commitment, and the state’s allocations are contingent for federal funding. So any legislative delay could have major ramifications.

“We need to secure state funding this year in order to stay on schedule to begin construction of the replacement bridge by 2014,” said Mandy Putney, a spokesperson for the Columbia River Crossing project organization. “We need that [Washington] match to move forward with the Federal Transportation Administration Fund application and to gain a future federal highway funds as they are available.”

The money, which Democrats had proposed to come from a gas tax measure, has run into a push back from Republicans

State lawmakers did approve a transportation budget that included $80 million for the crossing. However, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, has fought the current proposal, adding an amendment holding back most of the allocation until the project gets its Coast Guard permit, which is scheduled possibly for September.

“There’s a fence around the project now,” Benton said in a statement.

Republicans, whose coalition controls the Senate, have attempted to limit or change the project, with one House bill proposed during the regular session calling for a stop to all funding and a redesign.

Washington Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said in a recent statement the majority caucus had questions over the bridge’s impact on shipping, commute times, and “how the project would force an extension of Portland’s financially troubled light-rail system in Clark County (Wash.) over the objection of voters.”

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s staff has told local reporters that no light rail equals no project.

If things do come together, preliminary construction is set to begin next year with major construction starting at the end of 2014. The whole five-mile project is expected to take up to nine years to finish, and the bridge itself around five years, Putney said.

The crossing completed a seven-year review process in 2011.

As it stands, the funding of the more than three billion dollar project would be split roughly in thirds between the Federal government, tolls, and state contributions.

Project officials estimate that the Federal Transit Administration will kick in $850 million, the Federal Highway Administration $400 million, toll revenue will come in between $900 million and $1.3 billion along with a federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan used to leverage the tolls, and the two states split the remaining $900 million.

It is not completely clear yet how the Washington would choose to raise its share of the money, while Oregon’s legislation authorizes selling bonds to cover its share.

The project is also likely to start tolling before the project is fully finished, according to Putney.

According to varying early projections provided by consultants on the project in February, state-backed toll bonds could tally as low as $1.07 billion and up to $1.92 billion, or to between $1.21 billion and $2.07 billion in combination with a TIFIA loan.

The current crossing is not tolled, though tolls were used to finance each of the two current bridges. The last toll was removed in 1967 when the bonds that financed the second bridge were retired.

Despite the controversy over the funding, many agree that a change is needed.

President Obama has added the project to his “We Can’t Wait” list of critical infrastructure projects, which should help speed the CRC project through permitting and review by multiple federal agencies.

The existing I-5 crossing is a chokepoint, slowing down not only regional traffic, but also international trade on the interstate corridor that runs from Canada to Mexico.

Two lift bridges now support the I-5 over the river, one built in 1917 and the other in 1958, both on Douglas fir pilings that don’t reach to solid ground, creating a seismic hazard. There are three lanes in each direction, with no shoulders, and traffic has to stop when the bridges lift for marine traffic.

The project is co-sponsored by the two states’ respective transportation departments, with coordination and participation from six other government entities: the cities of Portland and Vancouver, the two metropolitan planning organizations that program federal transportation funding, and the two transit agencies that serve the respective sides of the river.




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