By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog
SALEM — Washington and Oregon would pay as much as $450 million apiece for a massive bridge and light rail project connecting Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, Wash.
The $3.4 billion bridge project, however, is cluttered with opposition piled on top of support underneath a heap of political deals and disagreements, all at a time when the states are struggling with burdensome debt loads.
It’s a veritable quagmire of controversy, but the respective state governments are pushing forward, nevertheless.
Expect a border war.
Also known as the Columbia River Crossing, the bridge would replace the Interstate 5 bridge, improve interchanges and extend light rail service 2.9 miles from Portland to Vancouver.
Opponents and proponents of the project flooded the Oregon Capitol on Monday for a nearly five-hour public meeting, a foreshadowing of events surely to come.
Washington state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said the political landscape in Washington is more “restrictive” than Oregon, and that the uphill fight might be even steeper there.
“It’s kind of interesting how never the twain shall meet, almost,” she said. “We’re really going to get to find out just how badly Oregon wants a bridge.”
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, supports the project, testifying at the hearing and calling on the Legislature to act quickly to secure the federal money, which, he says, will be available only if the state acts this session — probably by March.
Oregon is looking to leverage bonds to pay for the bridge, which would become a toll road. Oregon Transportation Commission chairman Pat Egan said he estimates that would cost $27 million a year for 30 years.
But there’s no new revenue steam to pay for it, at least not yet. Opposition to the project comes from all sides of the political spectrum in Oregon — from liberal environmentalists who fear the bridge is an expanded highway project to conservatives who don’t like the hefty price tag or the rail component. The proposed height of the bridge, which would limit some vessels from clearing the structure and possibly affect some jobs, is also a major area of contention.
Supporters say the current bridge is a safety hazard in terms of traffic accidents and congestion and is sorely in need of seismic upgrades. Residents of Hayden Island testified Monday they have already waited too long for an upgrade to their one way on and off their floating homes on the Columbia River.
While Oregon mulls proposed legislation to fund the project — another hearing is expected for Monday in Salem — Rivers and Washington state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, are pushing a measure that would prohibit funding of the bridge project if it includes light rail.
“This is not a bridge-replacement project,” Rivers argues. “This is a light rail project with a bridge thrown in.”
State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, who co-chairs the Senate Transportation committee, sent a letter to the governor requesting a new plan for the project — removing light rail and including a redesign.
But there’s strong support in Washington, too. Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat, has also given the project a thumbs up, and House Democrats from the Vancouver area are pushing him to fast track it.
Rivers questions whether Inslee, new to the office, knows the whole story.
“I do not believe that he’s fully apprised of the project. I don’t think he really gets everything with this project,” Rivers said.
Here are the biggest roadblocks, so far:
Light rail: Critics argue the light rail component of the project, which seeks $850 million from the Federal Transit Authority, is unwanted by many and, simply a waste of money. They say the train would be slower than the express buses that already traverse I-5.
“They’re not going to take the slow choo choo,” John Charles, president and CEO of free market think tank Cascade Policy Institute, told Northwest Watchdog in an earlier interview. He said the Portland metro area is a choice transportation market, meaning people have travel options. If the train takes 38 minutes and the buses take less than half that time, well, they’ll do the math.
“To me that should have been a deal breaker a long time ago,” he said.
Mitigation costs/height: The bridge is planned to be 116 feet and awaits U.S. Coast Guard approval. Egan said Monday the state is looking to mitigate “four affected users,” meaning some vessels won’t be able to clear the bridge. Officials with Greenberry Industrial testified that jobs would be lost if the bridge is built to that height.
“His mitigation costs won’t be cheap,” state Rep. Julie Parrish, R-Tualatin, tweeted from her seat on the committee panel during the testimony.
It’s unclear how much it will cost the state to mitigate these companies. Egan is expected to bring more information about the financial impact to the committee next week.