Oregon officials won’t support a Columbia River Crossing alternative that excludes light rail, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s spokesman said Wednesday, adding that removing light rail will kill the project.
“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,” the governor’s spokesman, Tim Raphael, said by email. “We’d be starting over on federal funding and permitting. Without light rail, there is no project.”
The governor’s statement comes as the Washington Legislature nears the close of the 2013 session and has yet to approve Washington state’s $450 million share for a new bridge across the Columbia River. The session ends Sunday, but it appears likely that Washington lawmakers will require a special session to finish budget negotiations.
Many critics of the $3.4 billion project say they don’t want to completely sink the CRC, but rather replace the light rail part of the plan with a different form of transit, such as express buses. They say removing light rail will reduce the overall cost of the project and therefore reduce the amount of tolls drivers will pay toward the new bridge.
But Kitzhaber doesn’t see light rail as a simple “add-on” to the proposed bridge, Raphael said.
Light rail “is a critical part of an integrated, multimodal, bistate solution that improves safety, manages traffic, protects air quality and supports the region’s economy,” Raphael said. “Governor Kitzhaber has been clear from the start: No light rail. No project. No kidding.”
State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, seemed unfazed by the Oregon governor’s comments. She said if Oregon’s support falls through for the project, “it’s just another hurdle to overcome. We can get there.”
Rivers, who has spoken out against light rail, said she would hope that even if light rail is removed from the equation, Oregon officials would still help replace the Interstate 5 Bridge.
“It would be great to have their cooperation,” Rivers said. “Making a comment like (Kitzhaber’s) doesn’t really show that they’re very willing to cooperate.”
To keep the project going on its current time line, Washington and Oregon this year are expected to jointly commit to about $900 million of the CRC’s total cost. Plans call for federal funding sources and tolling to cover the rest. 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.
If both states’ CRC money is dedicated by September, and all else goes as planned, construction on the bridge is expected to begin late next year. If not, the project will be delayed, but the length of that delay is a source of political contention.
All of the milestones the CRC has passed so far — environmental work, funding assumptions, the federal record of decision — center on the light rail plan local leaders approved in 2008. Changing course now would essentially mean starting from scratch, then-Washington State Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said late last year.
Even if removing light rail were an option, designers can’t simply lop off the bottom half of the planned deck truss bridge design and still expect it to function, CRC project director Nancy Boyd said.
Although Washington leaders at the executive level are strong supporters of the CRC as planned, the project’s fate rests in the Legislature, which appears divided over the megaproject. The Democratic-led House of Representatives is moving through a bill that would raise gas taxes and other fees to pay for the CRC and other large transportation projects. Meanwhile, conservatives who control the Senate don’t seem convinced that delaying the project is such a bad thing.
Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, told The Seattle Times that if Oregon walks away from the project, then “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.”
In addition to replacing the I-5 Bridge and extending Portland’s light-rail system into Vancouver, the CRC project would rebuild five miles of freeway and freeway interchanges near the bridge.
Eric Florip of The Columbian contributed to this report.
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