Gregoire: Columbia Crossing state's top transportation priority

Governor doesn’t say how to pay for new I-5 bridge

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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During her final State of the State address, Gov. Chris Gregoire, a staunch Columbia River Crossing supporter, put the controversial project at the top of her list of transportation work the state needs to do.

But she didn’t mention how she wants to pay for it. That, state officials said Tuesday, will be up to the Legislature.

It could mean further delays for the megaproject — now set to break ground in early 2014 and in need of $450 million from the state — if a focus on road maintenance fees takes priority over the $21 billion in needed new state construction projects over the next decade.

Gregoire proposed a 10-year, $3.6 billion revenue package, comprised of fee increases and a $1.50 charge on each oil barrel produced in the state of Washington.

That money will cover much-needed bridge, highway and ferry preservation, Washington State Department of Transportation spokesman Steve Pierce said.

“What the governor’s message was and is, is that we have to address the immediate short-term needs of maintaining and preserving what we have,” Pierce said. “I’m sure there will be lots of talk during this session about whether there’s ways to address those longer-term needs, such as the CRC.”

Still, Gregoire listed several new projects around Washington as being pivotal to the state’s economy — and she named the $3.5 billion CRC first.

She noted that the Interstate 5 crossing between Oregon and Washington carries $40 billion in commerce that is responsible for 130,000 jobs. And yet one span was built in 1917 for horse traffic, and that the span is the only stoplight on I-5, she said.

“Here, we build the roads and bridges our people must have to succeed,” Gregoire said.

Locally, Don Wagner, Southwest regional administrator with the Washington Department of Transportation and former co-director of the CRC, also noted that more will have to be done to find the money for the project.

Still, he added, “It’s nice to be first on somebody’s list.”

‘Really grateful’

CRC Director Nancy Boyd declined to comment on any financial details Tuesday afternoon, saying she hadn’t yet seen them. But she did say she was pleased to see her project come up as No. 1 on the capital list.

“I’m really grateful the governor understands the importance of the CRC to the transportation system for both Oregon and Washington, and how it relates to the economy,” Boyd said.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, who was in Olympia for Tuesday’s address, said he was “extremely pleased” when Gregoire gave the highway, bridge and light rail project her top spot.

“I was elated to hear her prioritize commentary about the CRC in her State of the State address,” he said. “The citizens of Southwest Washington, I think, ought to be proud that leadership in Olympia recognize that we have a problem with our infrastructure … and they want to help us fix it.”

State Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, chairwoman of the House Transportation Committee, said after the governor’s speech that it will take bipartisan work to “fund and build a transportation system that provides a solid foundation for future jobs and prosperity throughout Washington.”

“The proposals announced today will not by themselves meet all of our future transportation needs,” Clibborn said. “But they are a good beginning.”

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, said he and other lawmakers plan to draft a letter asking the C-Tran board to allow a public vote on the Columbia River Crossing, including issues of tolling and light rail.

Tolling is approved by legislators; a state transportation commission sets the tolling rate. C-Tran board members have indicated a November vote on light rail funding is likely.

“Give the voters the opportunity to vote,” Harris said. “I don’t know why we’re afraid of that.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.