Bridge partisans told to focus on nation’s transportation woes

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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Most of the 250 people who showed up Monday for a “listening session” held by the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in Vancouver hoped to send a message to Congress, pro or con, about the Columbia River Crossing.

But U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Florida Republican who chairs the committee, wielded his gavel — and his wit — to cut short testimony on the bridge project. Several panelists, including Washington Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond and anti-toll activist David Madore, were invited to shelve their prepared comments and cut to the chase.

Mica said he wasn’t interested in hearing about specific projects or debating tolling. Instead, he wanted ideas on how to meet the nation’s crumbling infrastructure needs in the face of rising costs and shrinking federal gas tax revenue.

“Everyone is free to express their views, but we aren’t going to entertain specific projects today,” he said.

As things stand now, said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., a longtime member of the committee, Congress expects to have $260 billion to spend on transportation in the next six years. That’s less money than it spent on the last federal highway bill, passed in 2003, he said — and far less than the $460 billion the nation needs going forward just to maintain its current system of federal highways and bridges.

And in the end, there was no clear signal from the committee that funding for the Columbia River bridge will be on the next project list.

In fact, Mica said, there will be no list. The next transportation authorization bill “won’t mention specific projects because we are banning earmarks,” he said.

Instead, he said, both House and Senate bills will set broad policy on what kinds of projects are eligible for federal funding.

Who will pick the actual projects? That’s still under discussion, Mica said in an interview. It could be the individual states, he said. It could be the Obama administration.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, who persuaded Mica to hold the Vancouver session, said she’s not necessarily comfortable with letting the executive branch pick and choose the transportation projects that will win federal money.

“I don’t favor giving sole authority to unelected bureaucrats,” she said after the two-hour meeting. “I’m going to be advocating that members still have some role.”

For his part, DeFazio said he’s puzzled by “this whole flap” about earmarks.

Congress reformed earmarks in 2009, he said. Members now must put their names on requests for specific projects, and those projects are reviewed and vetted during the budget process.

“To eliminate them means you think all wisdom resides with an appointed member of the administration.,” he said.

Funding is key

In opening comments, Herrera Beutler said the federal government, like individual households, must learn how to do more with less. As a member of the transportation committee, she said, she will be making decisions about the transportation needs of the entire nation.

But she vowed that the Columbia River Crossing will be her main focus.

“Let me be clear: I believe we need a new bridge that is safe, affordable and meets present and future capacity and freight mobility needs,” she said. “But I won’t support a bridge at any cost. Our community has been wrestling with the best way to replace the current inadequate bridge. It has not been a simple process.

“How we fund this bridge will have as significant an impact on our economy as the new bridge itself,” she said. “We must get this right. If we do, future generations will enjoy the benefit of our hard work through safety, increased through-put and an improved economy. If we get this wrong, future generations will be saddled with paying for a bridge that, at best, would not meet their needs, and, at worst, would have a disastrous impact on our economy.”

Pressed after the meeting on whether she believes tolling will be required to pay for the project, she said it’s too soon to answer to that question, especially since it’s not clear either state will be able to fund its share of the project. She said she would like to see an independent review of the financing plan for the project, which she believes is flawed.

“The question on my mind is, Who’s on that hook?” to cover the costs of the project, she said. “We have to know that we know that we know that the project we propose is the most cost-effective, efficient project possible.”

Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., a member of the transportation committee who attended the session, said raising the federal gas tax is not in the cards.

“We’re here to debate ideas,” he said. “What can we do in the federal government to reduce the cost of this bridge?”

After being schooled by the chairman, several panelists did come up with specific ideas for streamlining projects and cutting costs.

Hammond said Washington and Oregon, in cooperation with British Columbia, have found success developing Amtrak passenger rail service from Eugene. Ore., to Vancouver, B.C., using an incremental funding approach rather than seeking large infusions of capital upfront. Annual passenger numbers on the route have grown from 100,000 to 840,000 in the past few years, she said.

The state is using tolling to support major highway and bridge projects, Hammond said, and it’s working with its federal partners to streamline design and environmental permitting at the beginning of projects to avoid costly delays.

Larry Paulson, director of the Port of Vancouver, said it took more than 20 years to complete the Columbia River channel-deepening project, in part because of poor coordination and conflicting regulations among the federal environmental agencies.

He called on the federal government to spend $6 billion set aside for port projects in the federal Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. The port has been trying to win funding for more than four years, he said — so far without success.

Pete Capell, Clark County’s director of public works, said local governments need more resources to protect their existing roads and other infrastructure. He said the county has been asked to assess the significant environmental impacts that would occur in the future if it opens up a large undeveloped area to development, a challenging task.

Don Wagner, co-director of the Columbia River Crossing project, agreed with Paulson that shifting rules and overlapping agency oversight add to the cost and frustration of doing business with the federal government. Concurrent rather than consecutive reviews by federal agencies could speed things up, he said.

Joe Correy, with the construction company Goodfellow Bros. Inc., echoed others’ concerns about regulation, and suggested that the federal government delegate enforcement of environmental and labor regulations to the states.

Chandra Brown, vice president of Oregon Iron Works and president of United Streetcar LLC, was the hit of the session as she focused on how to make sure the Columbia River Crossing yields jobs and economic growth for the region. Oregon Iron Works has built several major bridge projects in the Northwest and beyond.

“Make sure it is built right here in Oregon and Washington, not China, and continue the transparency of Buy American,” a federal policy that gives preference to U.S. contractors on major projects, she said.

Streetcar lines are a major economic multiplier, she added.

“Cities see economic development along streetcar lines,” she said. “It’s a way to leverage federal revenue in the best way possible.”

All but about 17 minutes of the two-hour session was devoted to comments from the invited panelists and questions from committee members. Of the 125 people lucky enough to get seats inside the small community room at the Clark Public Utilities building, only five, chosen by lot, got to ask questions at the session’s end.