Pay Up or Shut Up

Lawmakers' first order of business: Find $450 million for a rebranded CRC project.

After more than a decade and $160 million spent on planners, consultants and lobbyists, the proposed $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing's moment has finally arrived. 

When lawmakers convene Feb. 4 to begin their regular session, the CRC will be at the top of the to-do lists of Gov. John Kitzhaber and new House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-North Portland), in whose district the project will happen—if it happens. 

Depending on who's describing it, the project to replace the existing Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail to Vancouver and fix five highway interchanges is vital infrastructure, a crucial economic development tool, or pork. 

Former state Rep. Katie Eyre (R-Hillsboro), who served on the CRC legislative oversight committee until this month, says proponents haven't made their case. 

“People are going to need to be very thoughtful about whether it’s good policy,” Eyre says. 

Some supportive Democrats want the construction jobs and traffic-congestion relief the project promises, while smart-growth Democrats critical of the proposal say the CRC is just a 1950s-style freeway expansion.

Republicans fear the project will divert transportation funding from their districts and do not want to vote for the new taxes and fees Oregon's $450 million contribution would require. 

The project's funding plan calls for Oregon and Washington each to pony up $450 million, with the balance coming from federal contributions and bridge tolls.  

Kitzhaber filed a bill to provide the funding, although nowhere in the bill do the words "Columbia River Crossing" appear.

That omission reflects the inconvenient truths that have dogged the project. For example, state figures show traffic across the bridge is 15 percent below the numbers that boosters used to justify construction.

"With each successive year, CRC is falling further and further behind its forecast," says Portland economist Joe Cortright, a critic of the project. 

Lighter traffic imperils toll revenues, which are supposed to provide more than $1 billion of the crossing's  financing. And Coast Guard concerns that the new bridge would be too low for marine traffic remain unresolved.

Washington state is also a challenge. Lawmakers there have higher priorities for transportation funding, such as a multibillion-dollar fix for Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct. Also, the Washington Supreme Court ruled last year that lawmakers must spend more on education, which could slice transportation funding by $500 million annually. And many Clark County voters oppose light rail. 

With all those troubles, it's not surprising that Kitzhaber's legislation refers to the CRC as “The Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Program.” 

The rebranding surfaced at the Oregon Leadership Summit in December, when the Oregon Department of Transportation handed out buttons with an I-5 highway sign and the motto “Build That Bridge.” 

Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton), chairman of the House Transportation and Economic Development Committee and a strong supporter of the project, says the new name is aimed at clarity, not shaking off controversy. 

“What I’ve found is, that name ‘CRC’ doesn’t necessarily mean anything to people,” Read says.  

Read's bigger concern is getting lawmakers to allocate $450 million. He says the state would probably borrow the money and repay it either with a new gas tax or an increase in vehicle registration and title fees. 

"There's a variety of opinions," Read says. "I am more a fan of the gas-tax option. It's easier to absorb because the price of gas fluctuates a lot. A license-fee increase may get people more irritated."

By law, new taxes and fees must start in the House and require a three-fifths vote of both chambers. 

Kitzhaber has already said he's not in favor of new taxes for education this session, and he's asking for cuts to public pensions and prisons, both of which have powerful constituencies. Getting three-fifths of lawmakers to support new taxes or fees for a controversial project—whatever it's called—will be a heavy lift. 

That's particularly true in the Senate, where Democrats' 16-14 majority is slimmer than their 34-26 advantage in the House and where the presiding officer, Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), has no geographical allegiance to the project.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, will be in a position to hold the project hostage if they choose. GOP spokesman Michael Gay says his party doesn't have a unified position. 

"The caucus as a whole is all over the map," Gay says. "I think our rural members are the most skeptical. They see it as a big tax increase that only benefits the Portland area.” 

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