Kitzhaber: Without light rail, new span across Columbia is history

Comments come as Washington Legislature considers project funding

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photoOregon Gov. John Kitzhaber

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OLYMPIA — Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's office says a proposed $3.4 billion Columbia River Bridge will die if Washington state tries to remove light rail from the project.

"Governor Kitzhaber has been clear from the start: No light rail. No project. No kidding," Tim Raphael, a spokesman for Kitzhaber, said in a statement released Monday.

The Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland has been in the works for years, and its fate appears to largely rest on whether Washington state agrees to put up $450 million as its share of the cost.

Democrats support the move, but the GOP-controlled majority in the state Senate has said it will reject any bridge proposal containing light rail.

The comments from Kitzhaber's office came as the Washington Legislature nears the end of its 105-day regular session. There's growing talk by lawmakers of going into a special session because of a wide gulf between House and Senate operating budget proposals.

House Transportation Chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, said it's possible, but unlikely, that the Legislature will act on an $8.4 billion transportation tax package before the session ends Sunday. The proposal includes money for the Columbia River project.

Opponents of the new bridge, referred to as the Columbia River Crossing, fear being yoked into paying new transit-operations taxes or think rail is a waste of potential road space.

They also maintain the addition of light rail restricts the height of the proposed bridge, making it too low for upstream companies to move cargo and equipment underneath.

The Washington Department of Transportation says that increasing the elevation of the proposed bridge could make it too steep for light rail, as well as create problems for truck traffic. The agency notes the Federal Aviation Administration also has raised concerns about increasing the height of the structure.

The rail line would link Vancouver commuters to Portland's light-rail service.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, the deputy Republican leader, said "it would be very simple to have the project sponsors vote to remove light rail from the bridge."

He argues the bridge could move ahead relatively quickly, and not require the decade of new planning that Democrats maintain.

Kitzhaber's office disagrees.

"Any analysis that claims there is a quick, easy or advisable way to remove light rail from the Interstate 5 bridge-replacement project is fundamentally flawed," Raphael said. Kitzhaber was in Bhutan and could not be reached for an interview.

"Light rail is not an add-on. It is a critical part of an integrated, multimodal, bi-state solution that improves safety, manages traffic, protects air quality and supports the region's economy. We'd be starting over on federal funding and permitting. Without light rail, there is no project," Raphael said.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood warned state lawmakers earlier this month that if they don't commit several hundred million dollars toward the bridge, they risk losing up to $1.2 billion in federal support.

Oregon state Sen. Lee Beyer, chairman of the Senate Business and Transportation Committee, agreed the bridge project would die if Washington opposed light rail or did not come up with its share of the money for the project this year.

"Any change to the project kills the project," said Beyer, a Democrat from Springfield. "There isn't the political energy to go forward and fight the battle again. We have other things we have to worry about."

Benton didn't seem bothered by that prospect.

If Oregon walks away, Benton said, "That would be way too bad for Oregon. What will eventually happen is those folks who are working in Oregon will eventually get tired of the commute and they will find jobs in Washington."

Senate Transportation Co-Chairman Curtis King, R-Yakima, also said he wasn't worried about Oregon dropping the project. The two states could work on retrofitting the existing bridge if nothing else, he said.

"If they were worried about congestion and worried about commercial traffic and the ambulances and all these things, they'd be looking at building a new bridge whether there was a light rail or not," King said.