Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler said Monday she expects a new House transportation bill in the next two months, but also said she remains unsold on the Columbia River Crossing.
A new bill would make a difference in securing the $450 million-plus of federal highway funding that the controversial project needs to get off the ground. Yet at the same time, the freshman Republican told The Columbian’s editorial board a vote on light rail would give her a better idea of local support for the $3.5 billion highway, light rail and bridge project.
Without offering specifics on funding sources or amounts, she said the House bill would be a “multiyear transportation plan.” But in a presidential election year and with serious differences between both parties about the duration and funding for a new bill, it’s clear no proposal will find easy approval.
The last substantial transportation bill was passed in 2005 and expired in 2009. In the meantime, lawmakers have added money to the pot incrementally — a process that makes planning for large multiyear projects such as the CRC uncertain.
During the last year, Herrera Beutler has called on local officials to hold a vote on a sales tax increase for operations and maintenance of light rail as soon as possible.
“When we have construction … when it goes over budget, and it’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when’ — it’s a megaproject,” she said, “we need to know 100 percent that we have approval.”
While she said she’d like to see an overall up-or-down vote on the entire project, she said that legally and practically, a C-Tran vote on the operations and maintenance of light rail is the best route. Should the measure pass, then she said she knows her constituents support the plans as they stand. If it fails, then Herrera Beutler said the need for a new bridge does not go away, but “it does mean we’re going to have to redraw things.”
“People have demonstrated they’re willing to pay for something they believe in,” she said. “(Those who are delaying a vote) shouldn’t be so afraid people won’t pay for something.”
While planning costs have topped $140 million, the congresswoman said that spending isn’t jarring to her.
“A project of this nature is going to cost a lot,” she said. “I get that, and I think most of the public gets that.”
But she did continue to stress her concerns about how funding for the CRC would be found at the local and state levels as well.
“We don’t know where that money is going to come from — that’s a huge red flag,” Herrera Beutler said.
As far as an upcoming House transportation spending proposal, Herrera Beutler didn’t say how it would be funded, but she did rule out an increase in the federal gas tax. Gas taxes, she said, are a declining revenue source, and so more out-of-the-box ideas such as a national car tab or tire taxes are still being researched. But the bill will be straightforward with no pork and an emphasis on projects of national significance. That would be legislation even House Speaker John Boehner, who has voted against every transportation bill put before him in the past, can support, she said.
“We have to figure out a creative way to do this,” she said.
In the Democrat-controlled Senate, a two-year bill was proposed late last year. However, indications have shown that Republicans in the House want any new bill to cover five or six years.