Gregoire: New bridge is needed now

Governor worries about public safety, says state can't defer investment

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Our Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River is an anachronism constructed in 1917. It's the finest antique technology money can buy. Built for horse and buggy, it sports the only stop light on I-5 between Canada and Mexico. It has to go, and its replacement, a modern multi-modal Columbia River Crossing, can't come soon enough.

I'm concerned for public safety. Wooden pilings that support the bridge piers do not extend to solid ground, just into the soils that could liquefy in an earthquake. It's a threat we've confronted in Seattle with the Alaskan Way Viaduct, where we're moving forward with our modern tunnel. We can no longer whistle past the graveyard as we cross the Columbia. Risks are real.

But it's not just catastrophic failure we need to fear. Accidents increase by three to four times during bridge lifts, which occur on average once a day and halt traffic up to 20 minutes. It can take several hours for traffic to recover from openings and accidents.

We can't ignore the negative impact the bridge has on the Northwest economy. This not a local issue. Bridge replacement is a statewide, even national, priority because it affects freight traveling between Puget Sound and the Willamette Valley and points far beyond. With Pacific Rim ports in Oregon and Washington, the bridge is a critical link between businesses and farms and global customers.

I hate to say it, but congestion on the current bridge is going to get worse. The 135,000 daily trips across the bridge are already delayed by congestion up to six hours a day. But with 1 million more people moving to the Portland-Vancouver area by 2030, our freeway is going to look like a parking lot.

I have pushed this project throughout my administration. Since 2006, we have worked with federal, state and local agencies to complete the environmental review and permitting process. In the budget I released this month, we identified solid funding to continue that preliminary work through 2014.

We must fund our share

We're also blessed to be collaborating with a federal government that remains a solid supporter of the Columbia River Crossing. The Federal Transit Administration is ready to provide $850 million, but only if we fund our share in 2013. We expect the Federal Highway Administration to contribute another $400 million. It would be incredibly short-sighted to leave that federal money on the table by failing to come up with state contributions from Washington and Oregon.

Unfortunately, we don't have Washington state's contribution to bridge construction costs ($450 million) sitting in the bank. Legislators have not approved a major transportation package since 2005, my first year in office. While the Legislature has yet to reach a consensus on which transportation projects we build next and how we fund construction, we can't defer critical transportation investments any longer. I couldn't include all bridge construction costs in my budget before policymakers develop a comprehensive statewide transportation package, but I remain a strong supporter of fully funding our contribution to the Columbia River Crossing in the 2013 legislative session.

It's true that funding decisions about transportation projects are not made in a vacuum and not always decided on their own merits. Families still struggle to make ends meet as effects of the Great Recession linger. Washington voters have watched their government cut $11 billion in state services since the start of the Great Recession. Many other priorities vie for scarce resources. But we must recognize that it's not a matter of "if" we build the Columbia River Crossing, but "when." The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be. The sooner we start, the sooner we create thousands of construction jobs and improve the flow of commerce.

There's no mystery on how we get there. We have limited options of how we pay for our vital transportation needs (fuel taxes, weight fees, vehicle excise taxes or tolls). The Legislature must step up and make this happen.