Official: 2013 CRC start date not likely

State transportation chief says money issues will push it into 2014

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Videos

Go to bottom of this story to see two videos of The Columbian's interview with Paula Hammond, state transportation director.

Stalled support for new state transportation money likely means construction on the Columbia River Crossing won’t start until 2014, the state’s top transportation official said Wednesday.

That portends a greater bridge cost and a missed deadline set by the governors of Oregon and Washington to break ground next year.

Without state funding to purchase properties in the right of way and pay for other key elements, it will be tough for the CRC to start on schedule, Washington State Department of Transportation Director Paula Hammond said.

“It’s hard to imagine any actual construction in 2013, especially if our Legislature hasn’t approved any revenue,” Hammond said in a meeting with The Columbian on Wednesday. “Without Washington gas tax revenue this year, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to start in 2013.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed a 10-year, $3.6 billion revenue package for road maintenance last month, but did not give plans

on money for new state projects such as the CRC. Hammond said there was talk by the Legislature to ask voters for a new 9.5 cent gas tax to raise about $10 billion for new projects. But as it struggles with shortfalls in the general fund and in education, she said “I’m worried it’s not going to happen.”

How much delays will cost hangs on inflation and the potential for increased property prices, she said.

The CRC’s planning costs currently run about $1 million a month. The controversial project would replace the Interstate 5 bridges, improve highway interchanges and extend light rail from Portland to Clark College.

Federal plans

The news of delayed state support -- Oregon and Washington are expected to contribute $450 million each -- comes on the heels of a sudden urgency at the federal level to pass long-term transportation spending bills.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler have both said they will fight for federal support for the project.

The House and Senate have suddenly made transportation a top priority, after years of passing piecemeal extensions of the last transportation package, which expired in 2009.

The House has proposed a $260 billion, five-year spending plan that has been delayed as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, struggles to get enough support for the plan.

President Obama has threatened to veto the bill as it stands, and it has drawn fire from segments ranging from transit advocates to Tea Party members.

The House plan currently torpedoes a major funding hope for the megaproject.

Along with $850 million in federal transit grants to build light rail, the CRC’s finances also hang heavily on getting at least $400 million from the Federal Highway Administration as part of its Projects of Regional and National Significance program.

Boehner’s plan cut the program, but lawmakers, including Eastern Washington Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, have drafted an amendment to include the PRNS account.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said Wednesday she’ll support the amendment.

“She wants the federal government to make the resources available to pay its share of replacing this bridge,” spokesman Casey Bowman said in an email.

A bipartisan Senate bill would spend $109 billion over the next two years, and keeps the PRNS program, although it doesn’t designate any specific pot of money for it.

“Investing in transportation infrastructure like the Columbia River Crossing creates local jobs and lays down a strong foundation for long-term economic growth throughout the region,” Murray said in a statement to The Columbian on Wednesday. “I am very glad that we are moving on this transportation bill, and I am going to keep working as this advances to make sure Washington state priorities like the CRC are positioned to get the support and investment they need from the federal government.”

Obama support

Herrera Beutler has said a five-year House bill ensures predictability for the project. But a progressive transportation policy analyst said that while the House bill does give more time, it also gives less money to states.

“A longer bill allows for more predictability, but unfortunately this bill cuts highway funding and locks us into that lower level of funding for those five years,” said Chris Rall, Portland field organizer for the Transportation for America Campaign, a policy organization focused on progressive transportation and land use policy laws. “The overall picture of the way that the House bill is written, both states, Oregon and Washington, might have to use money that might otherwise be used for other highway projects.”

The Senate transportation bill would increase Washington’s highway money slightly, to $741.6 million, said Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for Murray.

“It’s a slight increase, and the CRC would benefit from that at the state level,” Zupnick said.

Still, Zupnick said he didn’t see “substantial differences” between the House and Senate bills as they related to locking down money for the CRC.

Both plans would increase the amount of low-interest federal loans to projects, which would allow the CRC to borrow money, backed by tolling revenue, at an interest rate as low as 3 percent, Hammond said. WSDOT has asked for a $1 billion loan under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act.

Both also have money to improve freight corridors, a definite match with plans to improve flow on the often congested I-5 route.

“CRC is probably the best” candidate from Washington state to lock down competitive federal grants, Hammond said.

Hammond said it’s possible that some federal money could be rounded up to keep a 2013 timeline on track, noting an initial promise of $39 million for light rail planning announced Tuesday by the Federal Transit Administration was a “welcome surprise.”

She noted that Obama, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other federal officials have all talked up the CRC.

“I’ve never seen an administration rallying around a project like they have with (the CRC),” Hammond said.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.