Last night marked a giant leap forward for proponents of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing project, which will include a new Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver, an extension of light rail to Vancouver, a fix for five major freeway interchanges.
Lawmakers on a special CRC committee voted 14-2 to move House Bill 2800 to the floor of both chambers for votes. The bill commits $450 million to the CRC, if certain conditions are met: Washington must contribute the same amount; federal funds must materialize and Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler must approve new tolling projections that underpin the largest single source of funds for the project—an estimated $1.3 billion in revenue from tolling the I-5 bridge.
In July 2011, Wheeler produced an earlier report that said project tolling projections were wildly inaccurate—as much as $600 million too high.
Last night's vote came very quickly relative to the 2013 session and on only the second meeting of the special panel. But as committee member Sen. Rod Monroe (D-Portland) noted, it came 22 years after his first involvement with efforts to find a solution to chronic congestion at the crossing.
Lawmakers voted without seeing new tolling projections—seemingly a risk—and also sent the bill directly for floor votes, rather than to the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, where most big-ticket legislation goes for further analysis.
Today, we asked the presiding officers in both chambers—House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) about the absence of new tolling information and the decision not to send the bill to Ways and Means.
Here's what they said:
"The Speaker is comfortable with HB 2800, as amended, because there are sideboards and safeguards that control the timing of spending and limit costs. The amended bill prohibits the sale of bonds unless the Treasurer has approved an investment grade analysis of toll revenues and a comprehensive financing plan that shows sufficient revenue to pay for the initial phase of the project," Kotek's spokesman, Jared Mason-Gere wrote in an email.
"Speaker Kotek believes the committee structure this session allowed for a full and open consideration of the I-5 Bridge Replacement Project, while still moving swiftly enough to move the project forward. The committee considered the same elements of the bill the Ways and Means Committee would have, and worked closely with the Legislative Fiscal Office. The funding already exists in an agency budget. LFO has verified that the funds are available in the ODOT budget, and that they will not impact other existing projects. As a point of reference, the Jobs and Transportation Act of 2009 was also passed by a joint policy committee, and did not go to Ways and Means.
Courtney provided the following responses to WW's questions.
"The I-5 bridge project has been a tremendous challenge. To get two legislatures, two governors and all the federal agencies to come together is incredibly difficult. We're running out of time - both on the opportunity to claim federal funds and the chance of an earthquake. We can't wait.
"There's no such thing as a perfect bridge. No project of this magnitude will ever be perfect. It really comes down to a question of whether we build a bridge or not. We need a bridge that will make it safe to walk and bike, to ride and drive across the Columbia. We need a bridge we can move commerce over and under. We need a new bridge.
"Tolling estimates are just that. They're estimates. I don't think you'll ever really know exactly what the tolling will bring in until you experience the traffic flow. This is a new bridge with a new design and until you build it, you won't know exactly how people will use it.
"The legislative process surrounding the I-5 bridge project has been one of the most open and extensive efforts I have witnessed in my Legislative career. Over the last two years an oversight committee has studied the project extensively and taken public testimony in a series of hearings. We felt it was important to maintain the continuity of that oversight committee with the joint committee. We evenly divided the joint committee with equal membership from each party and we purposely appointed key members of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. Eight of the 16 members of the joint committee serve on full Ways and Means or the Transportation sub-committee. We took the joint committee process we used in 2009 on House Bill 2001, the Jobs and Transportation Act, and improved on it."