The start of major construction on the Columbia River Crossing is now set back to late 2014 — and that's if both states and the federal government are able to get financial plans in place, project directors told a legislative oversight committee Tuesday.
The news was delivered during a daylong meeting at Vancouver City Hall, the first convened by the Joint Transportation Committee's Columbia River Crossing subcommittee. The bipartisan group of state representatives and senators is tasked with making recommendations on how to proceed with the $3.5 billion project.
The state's Deputy Transportation Secretary David Dye emphasized the importance of the project, stressing that both Oregon and Washington must commit money soon. Dye chalked up the latest timing setback to "funding realities."
It also puts the project's major construction start time in a place where it's been since 2008: two years away. In 2008, plans for construction were set for 2010, and by 2010, word was construction would start in 2012.
A spokeswoman said Wednesday that minor construction, such as utility and other work, will likely start next year.
"The best possible scenario (for construction) is the latter part of 2014," Dye said. "A lot of things have to come together."
The project is relying on an approximately three-way split between tolling, the federal government and the two states. But uncertainty has swirled as Oregon and Washington legislatures balk at committing on their side without knowing what the
other state is thinking. And the federal government likes to see locals ante up first.
"Why is it the states always have to come forward first and then the feds may help to support us?" committee member Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, asked. "What's going to happen if we get there and they don't come forward with the money?"
Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matthew Garrett said that he sees it differently, saying that the project has clearly been labeled a top priority of the Obama administration. But he cautioned that "political winds do blow," and if the president is voted out in November, "I'm not sure we'd be in a similar situation."Most of the meeting was spent acquainting the members to the project and included a three-hour tour aboard a C-Tran bus to see the project site that the media were not allowed on.
Members asked questions about the Coast Guard permitting issue as well, with legislators particularly interested in how the CRC staff selected a 95-foot bridge height, which Coast Guard officials have since said is too low and will not be allowed.
Maritime law prohibits projects from blocking the "reasonable needs" of river users; the Coast Guard has indicated that 95 feet of clearance (and 80 feet in high water) does not meet those reasonable needs.
Staff said they are reassessing river users and hope to have a mitigation plan and a permit by the end of the year.
Oregon Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, chairman of the Oregon oversight committee — which has held about five meetings already — updated his Washington counterparts on their work. He also said that his committee is far from making recommendations, but offered his personal opinion.
"It's become clear to me that this is really a project of national significance," he said.
Beyer added that Oregon may not have to ask voters to approve the finance plan for its expected share of the project costs: The Oregon Legislature can enact a gas tax or license fee increase without a public vote. Of course, he added, Oregon voters could refer it to the ballot.
At least one Washington committee member, Chairman and Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, also offered his take on the CRC: "I personally believe that bus rapid transit would do every bit as well as light rail, but that's for someone else to decide as far as I'm concerned. And I don't want this project driven by the chance that there's some federal money we might get."
The oversight committee's next meeting is tentatively set for Aug. 20, with a place yet to be determined.
The members of the committee are: Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center; Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver; Chairman Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee; Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island; Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way; and Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima.