State Treasurer Ted Wheeler today released a three-page letter (PDF) to legislative leaders assessing the viability of the revised $2.8 billion Columbia River Crossing project.
Wheeler's letter is a finalized version of a memo WW first reported a couple of weeks ago. As with the draft memo, the letter Wheeler released today makes it clear project sponsors will have to thread a rope large enough to tie up an oil tanker through the head of a needle in order to strike a deal that protects Oregon taxpayers.
Here, in typically understated language, is the key take-away: "It is premature to conclude the project can work, financially," Wheeler wrote today to House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) and Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem).
That's an important caveat, or it would be if the project's supporters were actually concerned about deadlines or fiscal responsibility as they relate to the CRC.
Back in February, Oregon lawmakers passed a funding bill, House Bill 2800, that appropriated $450 million for the project—provided if and only if Washington did the same. The Washington Legislature refused, so Gov. John Kitzhaber and Kotek unilaterally moved forward with an Oregon-only CRC.
That solution, which would reduce the amount of work done to Washington interchanges on I-5 and cut the project's price tag from $3.4 billion to $2.8 billion, with Oregon alone making a state-level contribution and Oregon alone bearing the risk that tolling revenues would be sufficient to pay off billions of dollars in debt service costs.
Over the summer, Kitzhaber shifted the terms, naming Sept. 30 as the deadline for the Oregon-only deal to be in place. The idea was that deadline was necessary to qualify for a $850 million federal grant to pay for light-rail to Vancouver and a for $900 million low-interest federal loan.
Earlier today, WW published a letter from U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler saying that there is no such federal deadline and that the federal money is more theoretical than real.
The other condition was that Wheeler, who as treasurer is responsible for safeguarding the state's finances, was supposed to have attested to the financial soundness of the Oregon-only proposal.
He now says he cannot do that by the Sept. 30 deadline.
So, it is once again kick the CRC can down the road time.
Here's how Wheeler's hedging the state's bets in today's letter:
Under an Oregon-led scenario, Oregon would be responsible for the collection of tolls, so I cannot over-state the importance of a legally enforceable tolling agreement with Washington that includes clear authority for Oregon to establish tolls, surcharges and late fees over the life of the bonds.
These agreements must withstand economic and political changes over three decades. These provisions must be satisfied before an Oregon-led project could be considered financially viable.
In summary, if the project is to proceed to the stage of financing, you will need the following in order to satisfy the rating agencies and financial markets:
An executed, toll collection reciprocity agreement that ensures that tolls, surcharges and any associated late payment fees and penalties incurred by Washington drivers who use the new bridge will be collected in full on Oregon’s behalf by the State of Washington. This agreement can recognize that Washington will be consulted as to toll rates, but must allow Oregon’s Transportation Commission unilateral authority over the setting of future tolling rates to assure that they are sufficient to fund both upfront and on-going costs associated with the CRC project;
An executed agreement with the State of Washington authorizing the construction of bridge, rail and interchange improvements related to the project within the border of Washington State;
A dedicated source of annual funds to pay for the operation of an expanded light rail service into Vancouver, Washington
A bridge permit from the United States Coast Guard for the new bridge at the now- proposed height over the main channel of the Columbia River;
An $850 million grant through the Federal Transportation Administration to finance the light rail components of this project; and
A $900 million TIFIA loan from the Federal Highway Administration, which would be repaid over the next several decades with toll revenue generated by the project. It is important to note that the full “investment grade analysis” will not be completed until December.
This summary and the attached reports are based on preliminary financial information provided to the Treasury by the CRC project staff and third-party consultants. We have used conservative financial data based on the “Level 2” data provided to Treasury since August 19.
If the project proceeds to the next phase, the CRC’s consultants will complete a sensitivity analysis of the impacts of the key factors underlying their projections of future traffic patterns for the Interstate 5 Bridge.
This will better ensure that the remaining variables have been thoroughly vetted, understood and planned for well in advance of the actual sale of state bonds. Projections show that the majority of traffic using the bridge and paying tolls will be Washington drivers.