Crossing project at a crucial juncture

As target date for building it nears, many details not worked out

By Erik Robinson, Columbian staff writer

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Veteran Vancouver city councilor Jeanne Stewart appointed to the Columbia River Crossing’s Project Sponsors Council.

Hoping to make a bitter pill more palatable, Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart proposed allowing Clark County residents who work in Oregon to write off the cost of bridge tolls from their Oregon income tax returns.

Just one problem: Oregon political leaders want nothing to do with it.

“A ridiculous proposal,” Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt said.

Stuart’s idea, and its quick demise, highlights the rising level of difficulty faced by elected officials as they shift from planning a new Interstate 5 bridge to actually building it.

Fifteen years in the works, a new Columbia River Crossing faces a crucial juncture this year. The $4 billion project would replace the existing twin three-lane drawbridges, improve five miles of freeway and extend light rail through downtown Vancouver.

“The closer we get to something real, the harder it’s going to get,” Stuart said, “because the devil’s in the details.”

Among the details still to be worked out: toll rates, the number of lanes and hard cost estimates.

Planners in the bistate crossing’s Vancouver office will begin circulating drafts of a voluminous environmental study on the project by the end of this month, with time enough for two federal transportation agencies to publish a formal Record of Decision by the end of this year — just in time for both state Legislature’s 2011 sessions and for Congress to reauthorize the federal six-year transportation funding bill.

“If we don’t have a record of decision before the session starts, we could very easily miss an opportunity for funding of the project,” said Don Wagner, co-director of the crossing office in Vancouver.

Construction would start in 2012, after the state transportation departments acquire the necessary right-of-way.

The broad outline of the proposal — a replacement bridge with light rail — received the conditional support of city councils, transit agencies and metropolitan planning organizations on both sides of the river in June and July 2008.

However, the general agreement glossed over dozens of often-contradictory conditions adopted by each jurisdiction.

Those differences are now coming to the surface.

The Portland City Council, for example, adopted a resolution calling for a bridge of no more than 12 lanes — but that it should be “the smallest bridge possible to meet project needs.” Vancouver, meanwhile, has consistently pressed for 12 lanes to forestall future congestion. Portland’s Metro Council adopted a resolution specifically calling for tolls as a way of reducing congestion, while Vancouver’s resolution is silent on tolls. C-Tran specifies there must be a public vote on the money required to operate the new transit line in Vancouver.

Recently, the city of Portland embarked on its own initiative to design a six-lane bridge no bigger than the existing twin spans.

Portland Mayor Sam Adams suspended that project after Stuart objected.

Adams and his communications director, Roy Kaufmann, have not responded to numerous interview requests from The Columbian.

On Tuesday, members of C-Tran’s board of directors expressed consternation about continued uncertainty. Project supporters on the C-Tran board worried that federal officials, who have loosely pledged $1.1 billion in transit and highway funding, will shift the money to other projects if the region can’t get its act together.

“The government is going to say, ‘Enough is enough,’” La Center Mayor Jim Irish said. “I just don’t want to see us lose it. If we’re going to do it, let’s do it.”

Aside from putting project funding at risk, Wagner emphasized there is a cost to delay. Construction is expected to go on for five years. Assuming a 3 percent rate of inflation, costs add up quickly for each year the project drags beyond the planned 2012 start date.

“If it’s a $3 billion project at 3 percent annually, that’s another $100 million in cost for the exact same project,” Wagner said.

A tax write-off?

While Oregon officials fret about the risk of the project simply shifting congestion from the Columbia River into downtown Portland, elected officials in Washington have been catching an earful from Clark County commuters worried about paying $1,000 or more in tolls annually to continue working in Oregon.

Stuart, who serves on the 10-member Project Sponsors Council, tried to address that issue in his state of the county speech last week.

“If a direct user fee is to be the local share of this project, I will fight for the state of Oregon to allow our residents — who already pay more than $150 million a year in income taxes to the state —to write the tolls off on their Oregon income tax,” Stuart said. “It’s the least Oregon can do, and, frankly, a relatively easy way for that state to put money into the project without shelling out as much upfront.”

Hunt, in an e-mail to The Columbian, made it clear that Stuart’s idea is going nowhere.

“As both our states grapple with several financial issues, we need to be careful not to pit neighbor versus neighbor,” Hunt said. “That’s what this proposal does, by attempting to force Oregon into giving up a critical revenue stream that will force more economic distress on our citizens while providing a tax break for Washington citizens. This proposal is DOA.”

David Bragdon, the Metro council president who serves with Stuart on the Project Sponsors Council, said Stuart’s right about one thing:

Oregon will have a hard time coming up with money for the project.

“I think Oregon can and should come up with a solution,” Bragdon said. “I’m skeptical it can be in the range of $400 million to $600 million. The Legislature hadn’t increased the gas tax in 17 years. Then they did so in the 2009 session, but that’s already committed to other things.”

Stuart and Bragdon both have pressed the crossing office to conduct a scientifically valid survey to gauge the willingness of residents to pay a toll or boost gas taxes to pay for the nonfederal share of the project.

Wagner said this week that the CRC will commission a survey.

“We are planning on doing a statistically valid survey, and it’s probably going to occur before the Record of Decision,” he said.

What if the survey reveals the public believes the benefit isn’t worth the cost?

“Then, we recognize the timing’s not right,” Stuart said. “People are really struggling right now, and the idea of adding another $1,500 to $2,000 a year to their burden seems pretty extreme.”

Stuart acknowledged the lengthy planning process: Fifteen years have passed since the first bistate planning group recommended replacing the I-5 bridge. Stuart noted that America put a man on the moon in less time than it’s taken to plan the new bridge.

‘It’s frustrating to people,” he said. “I get it. The idea that we need more process rubs people the wrong way, and rightly so.”