Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has kicked his state’s review of an Oregon-led Columbia River Crossing into high gear, telling legislative leaders in a letter Wednesday that they’ll have answers on its feasibility by Sept. 15.
That turnaround would allow for “potential legislative action” by Sept. 30, when Oregon’s financial commitment to the CRC expires, according to the governor. But it’s unclear whether lawmakers will actually reconvene in an attempt to salvage at least some of the project, declared dead two months ago.
At the same time, Kitzhaber acknowledged the uphill climb he and other CRC backers face in their last-ditch effort to resurrect the beleaguered Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project.
“I am under no illusions about the weight of this lift,” Kitzhaber wrote to Senate President Peter Courtney, House Speaker Tina Kotek and others. “Perhaps we do not have the time, or the will, or a feasible pathway to get this project done. But the fact is, the need remains.”
Kitzhaber says he’s asking for an updated property acquisition schedule, a review of intergovernmental partnerships required to move the project forward, and a review of the finance plan for the phased CRC now on the table, among other evaluations.
The financial review will vet potential arrangements with transit agencies, federal partners, the state of Washington and, notably, the city of Vancouver, according to the letter. Vancouver is not a direct project sponsor, but Mayor Tim Leavitt suggested recently the city council may discuss how it could identify new revenue sources to pick up the annual tab to operate light rail. That responsibility had always fallen to C-Tran. Possible revenue sources include a surcharge on rider tickets and a fee for Park & Ride lots. Other options floated in the past included a business “head tax,” based on the number of employees, or reallocating savings from C-Tran no longer having to send some buses over the Interstate 5 Bridge to Portland if light rail makes the trip.
The letter comes less than two weeks after Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler raised several pointed questions of his own in a letter sent to Patricia McCaig, Kitzhaber’s adviser on the CRC. Kitzhaber’s letter thanked Wheeler for his work, and indicated lawmakers will have a plan to consider soon.
The review will be led by the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Justice, according to the letter.
Kotek, a strong supporter of the original CRC, welcomed Kitzhaber’s push.
“I applaud the governor’s work on this issue, and his commitment to finding the answers needed as we determine if and how we can move forward on improving the safety and efficiency of the I-5 Bridge,” Kotek said in an emailed statement. “Like the governor, I believe the need for the bridge persists. The information ODOT, the Department of Justice, and the treasurer’s office provide will help the Legislature determine whether there is a path forward.”
The CRC project office began shutting down in July, days after Washington lawmakers adjourned without authorizing any funding for the project. Backers have since picked up a phased version of the same project — including light rail and tolls — that would essentially lop off any freeway work north of state Highway 14. Backers say the pared-down CRC could be built for $2.75 billion, with Oregon taking the lead on financing.
The Washington State Department of Transportation has pulled nearly all of its workers off the project. The remaining CRC staff continue to seek a crucial bridge permit from the U.S. Coast Guard, one of many question marks still surrounding the project.
The Coast Guard is expected to make its decision by Sept. 30 — the same day Oregon’s $450 million commitment to the CRC expires, unless its Legislature acts.