After warding off a series of potentially fatal blows, the proposed $2.8 billion Oregon-only project took two headshots last week.
As The Oregonian first reported, Oregon Department of Transportation director Matt Garrett penned a remarkable admission to State Treasurer Ted Wheeler: Oregon has no legal way to force Washington residents to pay tolls.
“ODOT is pursuing a pathway with the state of Washington that would engage both states’ authorities in mutual toll violation enforcement,” Garrett wrote on Nov. 4. “This pathway, or iterations of it, may require legislative action by one or both states.”
In last week’s election in Washington, voters in Pierce and Kitsap counties handed a key state Senate seat to Republicans, who’ve already killed the CRC once this year—and are itching to do so again.
Here are four reasons the Columbia River Crossing’s days could be numbered:
1. Oregon’s inability to enforce tolls on Washington may kill the project’s funding.
It’s certainly the worst blow to the CRC since revelations in 2012 that the bridge was designed too low for marine traffic.
The CRC finance plan depends on selling more than $1 billion in toll-backed bonds. The tolls would be assessed by electronic transponders or cameras, primarily on Washington drivers, the biggest users of the Interstate Bridge.
Last week’s memo lays bare an enormous risk nobody had considered: ODOT has no mechanism to assure bond buyers that Washington drivers would pay their tolls. Without such an assurance, Wheeler cannot approve the deal.
“You can’t even get to a conversation about whether investment-grade bonds can be issued until you have confidence that the tolls will indeed be collected and enforced,” says Wheeler’s spokesman, James Sinks.
2. The Washington Senate is doing everything it can to kill the project.
On Nov. 8, Republican Jan Angel beat Democratic incumbent state Sen. Nathan Schlicher in a $3 million special election—the most expensive state senate race in Washington history. Her victory increases the Republican Senate Majority Coalition Caucus, which includes two rural Democrats. That caucus defeated a transportation bill that included Washington’s CRC contribution.
“I don’t see the majority coalition caucus allowing tolling on a project that is so fatally flawed,” Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center) tells WW. “I feel like this project has to be put out of its misery once and for all so we can get a solution that works.”
3. The Oregon-only plan depends on a legal opinion critics say is flimsy.
In a Sept. 12 memo to ODOT, Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum wrote that officials could spend state highway money on portions of the CRC entirely within Washington’s borders although Oregon’s constitution requires such money to be spent “in this state.” Building I-5 interchanges in Washington facilitates travel on Oregon highways, Rosenblum argues.
Critics disagree. Former legislative counsel Gregory Chaimov says if anyone challenges Rosenblum’s argument in court, the state would probably lose.
“[The attorney general] interprets this as anything that facilitates the state highway system,” says Bill Funk, a professor of constitutional law at Lewis & Clark Law School. “That’s not exactly what the constitution says.”
Adds Chaimov, “The constitution is supposed to be very narrowly construed to not allow the state very much leeway.”
4. Oregon legislators are abandoning the CRC.
After his success in the October special session, Gov. John Kitzhaber pushed for November hearings on the CRC in hopes of reviving flagging support from lawmakers. But Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) pushed back, voicing the objections of lawmakers who supported the CRC in February but no longer do. Kitzhaber has scrapped the hearings.
“He just doesn’t have the support,” says state Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn). “Nobody wants to take that vote.”