For most of the 2011 legislative session, lawmakers have avoided debating the massive Columbia River Crossing, a $3.6 billion proposal to build a new bridge and widen Interstate 5 at the Oregon-Washington border. Backers of the project, known as the CRC, haven't even been able to muster support for a meaningless resolution that calls on Congress to send Oregon and Washington the federal money the states need to build the bridge.

Meanwhile, legislators who have raised serious doubts about the project have won a big, but quiet, victory.

A Joint Ways and Means subcommittee last week approved a "budget note" that ratchets up the Oregon Department of Transportation's accountability on the controversial CRC. The budget note for the first time requires ODOT to make regular reports to legislators about the status of the CRC project. 

ODOT, the note says, "shall include updated information on cost estimates, proposed alternatives, right-of-way procurement schedule, financing plans for the CRC project including initial and updated information regarding projected traffic volumes, fuel/gas rate assumptions, toll rates, cost of toll collections," and other information.

Even though legislators have yet to approve a dime specifically for the project, ODOT and its Washington counterpart have spent $126 million to date on planning. Gov. John Kitzhaber, who backs the CRC, asked legislative leaders May 3 to increase their oversight of the project.

"A project this big has to have independent review from the Legislature," says Rep. Jefferson Smith (D-Portland), a CRC critic.

As WW reported last week, the state's own reports show the CRC won't fix most of the problems that backers cite to justify the project (see "A Bridge Too False," WW, June 1, 2011).

One big problem: There are a lot fewer cars using the current I-5 bridge than what ODOT predicted. That means the tolls ODOT hopes to collect from the new bridge may not cover payments on bonds needed to pay for the project. The budget note demands "an independent investment grade analysis of the project."

The CRC project needs Oregon and Washington to approve $450 million each. Lawmakers say that won't happen in Salem this year—and probably not until a lot of questions get answered. "We would all acknowledge there are traffic problems," says Rep. Katie Eyre Brewer (R-Hillsboro). "But the Legislature clearly has not approved the CRC in its current form.”