Coalition recommends cutting funding for new bridge

CRC part of list of reductions proposed by environmental, taxpayer advocates

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A group of environmental and taxpayer advocates recommended cutting off funding to the Columbia River Crossing in a report calling for $380 billion in federal budget cuts Wednesday.

“Green Scissors 2011” includes the proposed new bridge between Vancouver and Portland among a long list of projects and subsidies it views as wasteful or environmentally harmful. The coalition, led by four advocacy groups mostly based in Washington, D.C., issued its report Wednesday as a “memo” to the Congressional supercommittee recently formed to find more than $1 trillion in budget cuts as part of this month’s deal to increase the federal debt limit.

Kris Strickler, the CRC’s deputy director, said he had not seen the report as of late Wednesday. The list of proposed cuts reflects a tough fiscal environment, he said.

“I think all kinds of projects across the country in the current spending crisis are going to be looked at,” Strickler said.

The coalition represents an unusual mix of voices: Friends of the Earth, Taxpayers for Common Sense, Public Citizen and the Heartland Institute.

Despite the organizations’ different backgrounds, the report states, “we all agree that we can begin to overcome our nation’s budgetary and environmental woes by tackling spending that is not only wasteful but environmentally harmful.”

The report didn’t specifically discuss the CRC. Strickler defended the project, which recently won $5 million in federal grants for design work.

“I think, by all accounts, we have a very competitive project, and we’ve been told nothing different by federal partners,” Strickler said.

CRC critics have long accused the project of being too costly and inefficient. More than $130 million has been spent to date on planning, while a shovel won’t be lifted on the project until at least 2013.

The project’s financing plan appears to be facing a stronger headwind than ever. Last month, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler issued a report stating that tolling from the new bridge — expected to account for a third of the project’s funding — could fall short by almost $600 million due to faulty traffic assumptions. State budgets are tight. And prospects for nailing down federal funds remain foggy.

“This report is just one more indicator of the difficulty in finding federal funding for new projects in the current budgetary environment,” Ryan Hart, district director for 3rd District U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, said in an email. “Jaime has been working to help local leaders understand the challenges the region faces at the federal level.”

Hart reiterated the Camas Republican’s call for a public vote to show local commitment to the project. In 2012, Clark County residents could decide the fate of a sales tax increase that would pay, in part, for the operation of a light rail extension that would come to Vancouver with the CRC. A separate C-Tran tax measure on the November ballot this year does not relate to light rail.

Strickler noted the project has found the favor of local government bodies. The Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, C-Tran Board of Directors and TriMet have all given a thumbs-up to the project’s sprawling Final Environmental Impact Statement. Oregon’s Metro Council recently delayed its decision, but is expected to weigh in soon.

CRC planners are now taking a harder look at completing the project in phases to add flexibility. Funding sources have been identified, but none of them has been secured.

CRC officials have recently estimated the project’s cost at $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion, depending on its scope. The Green Scissors report lists the savings to taxpayers by killing it at $3.6 billion, an older estimate.

The influence of the Green Scissors list remains to be seen. Congressional leaders have until this fall to agree on a package of budget cuts under the debt deal.

“This report itself won’t kill funding for the bridge,” Hart said, “but it serves as an important reminder that the questions and concerns surrounding this project must be dealt with in a timely manner.”

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541 or eric.florip@columbian.com.