Flurry of bills may influence CRC plans

Legislators touch on money, contracting, election issues

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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While Columbia River Crossing supporters work to keep the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement on track, state lawmakers are writing bills that affect it.

One would strip light rail from a new bridge. Another would tweak the tolling agreement Washington and Oregon reached last legislative session. Others delve into bridge construction contracts, transportation district elections, and plans to pay the state's share of the project's cost.

A bill that would encourage CRC builders to use steel from a Pacific Northwest fabricator has cleared a couple of critical legislative hurdles.

Introduced by Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, House Bill 1288 would require the state's Department of Transportation to charge a fee when its inspectors travel more than 300 miles from Olympia to examine steel for a boundary bridge. The minimum fee would be $5,000; if the steel fabricator is more than 3,000 miles away from Olympia, that minimum increases to $8,000.

"This bill simply states that if you're going to purchase your steel for a bridge, particularly for a boundary bridge, that it's going to be" local steel, Moeller said.

Before a House Transportation Committee vote on Wednesday, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, asked his fellow lawmakers to vote no. He said it could increase CRC project costs, and cause other states to retaliate, rejecting Northwest businesses.

Orcutt said Moeller's bill sends the message: "We're going to penalize you, and we're going to try to push you down to try and prop our people up." He added that there are better ways to make Washington businesses more competitive.

Nevertheless, the committee passed the bill. It still requires a vote of the entire House, then goes to the Senate, which has a conservative majority.

Setting tolls

Sen. Don Benton's bill to add more stipulations to a CRC tolling agreement between Oregon and Washington officials received a public hearing Thursday. Opponents of Senate Bill 5502 testified that it could harm the CRC's toll rate-setting process, resulting in higher tolls for drivers.

The Vancouver Republican's bill would add to the tolling agreement that toll rates must affect Washington and Oregon residents equally, that all nonemergency vehicles must pay the full toll, that a bistate citizen tolling advisory committee must be created, and that there must be a tie-breaker procedure in place if officials from the two states can't agree on a rate.

Benton, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee, said he based the provisions on tolling agreements nationwide.

"We should address those issues now, before we begin collecting tolls," he said.

But some of the new provisions will give toll bond investors the impression that there is uncertainty about the tolling agreement, opponents of the bill said.

"Political influences, along with detailed provisions in law controlling aspects of rate setting or decision making, inserts uncertainty into the rate setting process, which is calculated as a risk when investors are calculating the bond sales for toll facilities," said Reema Griffith, of the Washington State Transportation Committee.

Benton also introduced a bill about tolling oversight. Senate Bill 5611 would ensure that at least one member of the state's transportation commission, which oversees tolling facilities, is from Southwest Washington. Also under the bill, the seven-member commission couldn't have more than four members from the same major political party.

That bill is scheduled for a public hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.

Light rail

A bill introduced by Benton to prohibit light rail on the CRC hasn't been granted a public hearing since it was introduced in the Senate Transportation Committee Jan. 17. Although momentum on that proposal, Senate Bill 5090, appears stalled, light rail remains a bargaining chip in talks about paying for the CRC.

Late last month, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee stating he can't support setting aside money for the CRC as long as the project includes light rail. Benton has echoed that sentiment. CRC proponents say the state must dole out some money for the CRC this session for the project to stay on schedule.

As proposed, the CRC would replace the I-5 bridges over the Columbia River, rebuild five miles of freeway interchanges on both sides of the bridge, and extend a light-rail line from Portland into Vancouver. Paying for the $3.5 billion project is divided into three parts: federal money, tolling, and $450 million each from Washington and Oregon.

King co-chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, with CRC supporter Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way. The committee is made up of eight Republicans, seven Democrats, and one Democrat who often votes with Senate Republicans.

In the Legislature, the House has a Democratic 55-43 majority and the Senate has a slim 25-24 conservative majority. Inslee supports light rail on the CRC.

If CRC opponents can't block light rail on the project outright, they can try pass bills to limit the authority of C-Tran, the transportation district searching for a way to pay for the maintenance and operation of future light rail in Vancouver.

Transit districts

Benton has introduced three pieces of legislation impacting transportation districts. Senate Bill 5088 would repeal a 2009 law that lets C-Tran create taxing subdistricts in urban areas that would pay for high-capacity transportation services, such as light rail. The bill received its second committee hearing on Thursday.

Benton argued Thursday that the 2009 law could be abused. He used a hypothetical example about Westfield Vancouver mall to make his point.

"What the (law) allows is gerrymandering of a voting district," he said. "It allows you to draw a very narrow line just around an area where most of the retail operation is, and get the folks who live in the apartments around there to vote for that. And then you get to tax everyone in the county who comes there to shop."

Jeff Hamm, C-Tran executive director, spoke against the bill, defending the 2009 law. Less-populated parts of the C-Tran District were concerned about having to pay for light rail and Bus Rapid Transit in Vancouver, and the law could help address those concerns, Hamm said.

"The intent was to be able to better align who benefits and who pays," Hamm said.

Matt Ransom, representing the city of Vancouver, added: "Tying benefit to tax is good governance." He opposed the bill, as did representatives of the Washington State Transit Association and the state's department of transportation.

Benton also introduced a bill to block transportation districts, such as Clark County's C-Tran, from using vehicle fees to pay for anything except highway projects. C-Tran does not impose a per-vehicle fee for any of its services, but no rules prohibit it from doing so as part of a plan to pay for light-rail maintenance.

While testifying in support of that proposal, Senate Bill 5093, Benton said that when money is tight, maintaining highways should be a priority over other transportation needs. That bill received a hearing Jan. 30 and still awaits executive action in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Benton's Senate Bill 5085 would block C-Tran from putting any more light-rail funding measures on the ballot until voters approve the plan they rejected last fall. That bill also hasn't been granted a public hearing since it was introduced Jan. 17 in the Senate Transportation Committee.

Paying for the CRC

In a hearing Thursday, Washington transportation officials said Oregon and Washington want to make sure they are "jumping together" in to putting up their shares of the CRC money.

The Oregon Legislature is fast-tracking House Bill 2800, which would pay for its portion of the CRC, Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said. The Oregon bill includes a stipulation that would allow it to back out of the CRC financing plan if Washington fails to chip in with its share.

Meanwhile, Washington House Democrats are reportedly planning to reveal a transportation package next week that includes money for the CRC.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press conference Wednesday that coming up with a transportation funding plan is "one of the most important things we can do for job creation; it's the right thing to do."

To pay for the state's mega-projects, Inslee said, he won't rule out any revenue source, including a gas tax. The state has transportation projects that could benefit the economy, "but guess what?" Inslee said. "They're not funded. We're building bridges and tunnels and everything else with no money to finish them. We've got to (find) a way to finance these."

The deadline for bills to pass out of committees in their house of origin is Friday. Bills that could affect the budget are exempt from cutoff deadlines. The 105-day legislative session ends April 28.


Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523; http://facebook.com/reportermathieu; http://twitter.com/col_politics; stevie.mathieu@columbian.com.