Authorize This

Oregon officials say in court they don't need lawmakers' approval to keep spending on the CRC.

RIGHT TO THE EDGE: State officials working for Gov. John Kitzhaber (in front of the Interstate Bridge in 2011) say they can push the Columbia River Crossing nearly to the start of construction without lawmakers approving any money for it.

Ever since he pronounced the Columbia River Crossing dead, Gov. John Kitzhaber has been trying to claw his way back from the fatal diagnosis he gave his pet transportation project.

Kitzhaber has declared Oregon can push ahead with a $2.8 billion bridge and freeway expansion without Washington state's money—something he once said was impossible.

He's also said the Sept. 30 deadline for obtaining federal money for the project, something his aides said could not be missed, was actually more of a guideline.

But the governor has been clear that the Oregon Legislature will again need to approve money for the CRC, after its funding authorization expired at the end of last month.

Kitzhaber told The Oregonian on Sept. 25 lawmakers should hold public hearings on his latest CRC strategy before giving their blessing again.

"If all the things line up…I would definitely entertain another one-day special session," Kitzhaber said.

But court documents show Kitzhaber's transportation department is telling a federal judge a different story.

In U.S. District Court, the Oregon Department of Transportation and the state Justice Department have argued Oregon doesn't need legislative approval to keep spending on the project.

Documents show state officials say they can burn through another $60 million, if they need to, without lawmakers giving their OK to the Oregon-only project.

Kitzhaber's office didn't respond to WW's questions for this story.

The CRC promises to replace the twin spans of Interstate 5 over the Columbia River, send light rail to downtown Vancouver and expand Oregon's highway interchanges. 

The Coalition for a Livable Future and other groups opposed to the CRC are suing over environmental arguments. 

The plaintiffs want to suspend their lawsuit, arguing the project was declared dead by Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee after the Washington Legislature rejected paying its $450 million share in July. 

In court, however, state officials argue that little has changed about the CRC since Washington's rejection of the project.

State officials also say delaying the lawsuit would hinder ODOT's ability to start construction next year—which they claim is possible without having the project funded by the Legislature.

"Washington's inaction did not close down the CRC division of ODOT, dismantle the construction schedule for the bridge span or otherwise cause the bridge construction to meaningfully change," state lawyers told the court in an Oct. 4 brief.

"While funding in any public project is critical, it is rarely if ever, completely known and committed before a project has been identified, planned and substantially designed and permitted, i.e. 'shovel ready.'"

"The Oregon Legislature," the state's court filing adds, "has already spoken that it supports this construction of this bridge."

What ODOT's attorneys didn't tell the judge is that the Legislature approved the bridge with strings attached—including a guarantee of Washington's money by Sept. 30.

Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn) is a member of a joint committee that oversees the CRC. She says she was unaware the state plans to keep spending on the project without further legislative approval.

"Where is the directive to keep working on the bridge?" Parrish asks. "It hasn't come from the Legislature."

In fact, the state points to a declaration from a Federal Highway Authority employee who asserts there's $60 million in federal money available so ODOT can proceed with the project even without another vote by lawmakers.

"'Reckless,' that was the word that came to mind," says Tom Buchele, a Lewis & Clark College professor of environmental law who is representing  the plaintiffs in the CRC case.

“It’s one thing to say you don’t have funding yet, but here their funding plan failed. Twice.” 

WWeek 2015

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