By Shelby Sebens | Northwest Watchdog
UPDATED at 12:41 p.m. April 4
UPDATE: State Rep. Brent Barton, D-Clackamas County, told Willamette Week last month he would have voted yes on the Columbia River Crossing funding bill in February had he been able to make it. Barton never returned Northwest Watchdog’s calls for comment.
PORTLAND | When the Oregon House voted Monday to approve a massive and controversial bridge project, four lawmakers weren’t there.
The House voted 45-11 to approve spending $450 million on the new Interstate-5 bridge, also known as the Columbia River Crossing, from Portland to Vancouver. Only 11 members – nine Republicans and two Democrats – voted against the bill that now moves to the Senate despite fierce opposition to the project from both sides of the political aisle and no new revenue identified to pay for it.
Three of the four lawmakers contacted by Northwest Watchdog were sick and couldn’t make it but they told us how they would have voted.
State Reps. Kim Thatcher, R- Keizer, Tim Freeman, R-Roseburg, and Jim Weidner, R-Yamhill, were all sick Monday but say they would have voted no had they been in Salem for the big day, according to their staff.
[Updated comment from Weidner] “I have some concerns that remained unaddressed, especially with a project of this magnitude, significance and importance,” Weidner said in an email Thursday morning. “It requires full fiduciary confidence, accountability, transparency and credibility to gain full support from both citizens and elected officials to alleviate all concerns; this bill didn’t address all of those concerns, so I would have been a “no” vote.”
Freeman echoed those concerns.
“He had told multiple people he was definitely a no vote,” Freeman’s chief of staff Betsy Schultz said. “He didn’t feel like it’s good government practice to spend money we don’t have.”
But what about state Rep. Brent Barton, D-Clackamas?
According to Barton’s chief of staff Kate Kimbell, who responded in an email, “Representative Barton is a practicing attorney, and he was in a legal deposition on Monday. His excused absence was arranged with the Clerk of the House on February 4th.”
Northwest Watchdog didn’t ask whether his absence was excused, just how he would have voted if present. As we published, neither Barton nor his staff revealed how he would have voted.
Clackamas County Republican Party Chairman John Lee has a hunch. He said Barton was under a lot of pressure over the controversial project. An opposition group even put up a billboard on Interstate 205 asking, “Which state Representative is about to raise your taxes to pay for light rail to Vancouver?”
“I just know he didn’t bother to go to Salem on one of the biggest bills this year,” Lee told Northwest Watchdog, adding he thinks Clackamas County residents have a right to know why Barton missed the big day.
“The Columbia River Crossing project will have a big impact on transportation and development in Clackamas County, yet Brent Barton was nowhere to be found,” Lee said in a press release calling on Barton to respond. “Barton’s absence on the CRC vote raises questions about who he actually represents. It’s unfortunate that Barton’s big-money law firm is a higher priority than his constituents.”
Clackamas county commissioners have concerns about the impact of Interstate-205 when the I-5 bridge is tolled. They fear more traffic will be diverted through Clackamas County because of tolling and during construction of the new bridge. Many also oppose the 2.9-mile light-rail extension that will be part of the new bridge.
The Senate is likely to hear the CRC funding bill as early as Monday. For the bridge to become a reality, Washington state would have to pony up the same amount as Oregon, and much more would be required from the federal government.
State officials say there’s enough transportation money to pay down the debt service on the project in the first two years. After 2016 , however, lawmakers will have to find a new revenue source, and it’s possible they’ll look at raising the gas tax – or borrow from other projects.