(Steve Bloom/Associated Press)
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited Olympia on Wednesday, urging state lawmakers to approve Washington’s share of the Columbia River Crossing project.
“We need to have people with vision step up and say: ‘Those who have worked for 12 years on this project deserve to have this project move ahead, because they’ve done all the hard work,’ ” LaHood said during a press conference, as Gov. Jay Inslee stood by his side. “We are prepared to put millions of dollars into this project because it’s important to America.”
LaHood said the federal government is “ready to move this project along,” but it can’t do that if state legislators don’t approve as much as $450 million for the project this year. Oregon legislators have already approved spending Oregon’s share of $450 million on the CRC, but that spending agreement is contingent on whether Washington legislators do the same this year. The 2013 Washington Legislature is scheduled to conclude April 28.
“The one big defining issue is: Will the state of Washington step up with its commitment?” LaHood said. “This is the 11th hour. Fish or cut bait. Make a decision.”
Washington and Oregon are expected to jointly pay about a third of the CRC’s total cost. Plans call for federal funding sources and tolling to cover the rest. The $3.4 billion megaproject would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail into Vancouver and rebuild five miles of freeway and freeway interchanges near the bridge.
LaHood said the federal government is enticed by the project because it includes multiple modes of transportation, including light rail, and because it improves I-5, a vital economic corridor.
“There is no project like this in America,” LaHood said. “That’s why we love this project. We do. I talk about this project all over America.”
But that support will wither if Washington and Oregon don’t unite around the CRC as proposed, LaHood said. That loss of political momentum would set the project back years, and federal money that could go to the CRC likely would go instead to some other transportation project in another part of the nation, he added.
When it comes to the CRC, “all the boxes are checked,” LaHood said. “All the bureaucratic red tape has been completed.”
LaHood also pointed out that President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for the upcoming year includes $65 million in federal money for the CRC. Project planners said in a statement that the president’s budget plan “demonstrates the administration’s support for the project and shows confidence that Oregon and Washington will secure a full funding grant agreement for the project’s light-rail component in 2014.”
Earlier on Wednesday, LaHood met with Republican and Democratic groups in the House and the Senate to talk specifically about the importance of the CRC. LaHood called some of their discussions “lively.”
Majority caucuses in both the House and Senate did not include Washington’s share for the project in their transportation budget proposals, but House Democrats have put forward a separate transportation package that would raise revenue for new projects and give $450 million to the CRC.
State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver and longtime CRC critic, said it’s “unlikely” that the Senate, which has a conservative majority, will support $450 million for the project. Benton said tolls on the bridge will financially harm many living in his 17th District who commute every day to Oregon for work. He also said his constituents do not support a Portland light-rail line extending into Vancouver.
“My citizens will pay the lion’s share of this project,” Benton said.
Although several Republican legislators from Southwest Washington oppose the CRC and want to see it redesigned, Inslee said the bridge should not be a partisan issue. Inslee also has pointed out that the I-5 Bridge, built on wooden pilings nearly a century ago, poses a safety risk, and that the lift bridge regularly stops traffic on the interstate.
“We’re either going to grow our economy and build this bridge, or we’re going to start to erode the transportation infrastructure, the I-5 corridor, the single-most important artery in the Western United States,” Inslee said.
LaHood is a former Republican congressman from Illinois who began serving as President Barack Obama’s transportation secretary in 2009. In January, LaHood announced he plans to leave his post, once his replacement is found.
Benton said conservatives in the Senate are “very concerned” about the CRC. He said he believes a redesign of the project won’t delay replacing the I-5 Bridge as much as CRC supporters say.
“We don’t buy that ‘now or never’ speech the secretary gave,” Benton said, speaking for the Senate majority caucus, which is made up of 23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats.
Opponents of the CRC point out that the project’s planning has been far from perfect. A recent disagreement between CRC planners and the U.S. Coast Guard about the bridge height prompted bridge designers to increase the CRC’s height from 95 feet to 116 feet above the water. They are waiting to see if the Coast Guard will approve that new height.
A 116-foot-high span would still prevent a few businesses upstream of the bridge from moving some of their cargo down the Columbia River.
LaHood said on Wednesday that he’s been in meetings with the Coast Guard, and “I believe the issue with the Coast Guard will be resolved.”
The transportation secretary also said the CRC will receive stringent oversight.
“We’ll make sure this is done by the book, correctly,” LaHood said. “We’ll keep it under a microscope.”
Supporters of the project have been trying to ratchet up support in recent months. Last month, Inslee visited Vancouver, asking supporters to raise their voices in a debate that’s been dominated by the project’s critics. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., made a stop in Vancouver a month before that, telling Southwest Washington community leaders that the CRC is “the single biggest investment we can make in this region’s economic future.”
On Wednesday, Murray applauded LaHood’s trip to Olympia.
“The CRC project is vital to our state and our region’s economic future, but the federal funding included in the president’s budget and Secretary LaHood’s visit today shows that the CRC is a national transportation priority, too,” Murray said in a statement. “With unprecedented federal funding and a commitment from Oregon in place, the CRC is moving forward with strong momentum, so we’re relying on Washington state legislators to step up and move this important project forward.”
State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver and a supporter of the CRC, said he acknowledges that securing money for the CRC this legislative session will be “an uphill battle,” but he said LaHood’s trip to Olympia to lobby on behalf of the CRC sent a powerful message.
“People who are against this bridge haven’t heard the federal government say ‘it’s now or never’ like that before,” Moeller said. “I think that’s why the secretary came, to bring pressure to bear on the bridges’ opponents.”
But Benton appeared unimpressed with LaHood’s visit.
“The governor and the CRC supporters are obviously getting more desperate by the day; they see how time is running out to get the Legislature to go along with this boondoggle,” Benton said in a statement released Wednesday. The statement was titled: “It’s Benton 1, U.S. transportation secretary 0 in CRC debate at capitol.”
Lucas Wiseman contributed to this report.
Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or email@example.com