A broad transportation revenue package unveiled by Washington state House Democrats on Wednesday would steer crucial money toward the Columbia River Crossing.
The nearly $10 billion package includes $450 million for the CRC — the amount project planners are banking on as Washington state’s share. That’s among several key pieces of the plan that must fall into place this year for the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement to stay on track.
The package would raise an estimated $9.8 billion during the next decade with a 10-cent gas tax increase, a new annual car tab fee based on 0.7 percent of a vehicle’s value, and more than $3 billion in new bonds. The money would help pay for several of the state’s megaprojects besides the CRC, including the North Spokane Corridor, widening Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass, and connecting state Highways 167 and 512 to Interstate 5. It would also set aside $1 billion to maintain existing infrastructure.
“The components in this 2013 transportation package are of utmost importance for every one of our Washington communities,” Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said in a statement. “I know of Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate who support this pivotal proposal. I’m confident we can get to an agreement. We simply have to.”
Wednesday’s announcement now gives the CRC an identified path to secure state funding in both Washington and Oregon. On Monday, Oregon lawmakers advanced a bill that would allow Oregon to borrow $450 million for its share of the CRC. But both states still need to get the full legislatures on board. And Washington Republicans bristled at the transportation package introduced Wednesday, dubbed Connecting Washington. They especially targeted the gas tax increase.
“House Republicans understand there are maintenance demands and new projects needed in the future,” Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said in a statement. “But any debate on transportation must begin with reforms, not tax increases on struggling workers and families, and not new project lists to entice votes in the Legislature.”
Orcutt is the ranking Republican member on the House Transportation Committee.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, said he believes any package put forth should go to Washington voters for approval. Such a proposal needs to consider the impact to citizens, he said, and what economic benefit may come from it.
“I personally think it’s the wrong year to do it,” said King, co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. “I think the economy has not improved to the point where people are more comfortable.”
King has been critical of CRC. Last month, he sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee calling for a new direction on the project, without light rail. And Wednesday, he cited several unanswered questions about the CRC — including whether the U.S. Coast Guard will approve a 116-foot-high bridge, and how tolling revenue will pencil out. An investment-grade tolling analysis underway now isn’t expected to wrap up until late 2013.
“You have to approve this money before you get to hear the result,” King said. “And that bothers me.”
Inslee welcomed Wednesday’s proposal in a released statement, and said he looks forward to working with lawmakers on the issue.
In addition to replacing the I-5 Bridge, the CRC would extend light rail into Vancouver and rebuild the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River. Washington and Oregon are expected to chip in a combined $900 million. The rest of the $3.5 billion finance plan includes federal money and up to $1.3 billion in tolling revenue.
Oregon’s state funding share appears to be on the fast track in Salem. The full House could consider the CRC bill as soon as next week, said Patricia McCaig, the CRC’s government relations coordinator for Oregon.
But even if it clears the full Legislature, Oregon’s bill puts several important conditions on its $450 million share. The state would pay only if Washington also commits, if federal funding comes through, if the Coast Guard permits the project, and if tolling revenue is sufficient.
“If any of those triggers don’t occur, then basically the legislation sunsets,” McCaig said.
Still, the CRC took Washington’s transportation package as a positive sign, McCaig said.
“I think this will be perceived in Oregon as a good indicator that there is interest in doing something,” she said.
The proposed revenue package also includes a new $25 fee on bicycles that sell for at least $500, which is expected to bring in $1 million during the next 10 years.
Additionally, $900 million of the package will be raised from a 0.3 percentage point hike in the hazardous substance tax, and nearly $200 million will come from new county auditor fees of $5 for vehicle tab renewals and $12 for title transfers.
An interstate letter
Meanwhile, a group of Washington Republicans appears to be lobbying Oregon counterparts, cautioning against moving forward on the CRC. In a letter sent this week, nine House and Senate members cited what they called “largely negative” public sentiment against the project in Southwest Washington.
“We urge you and your members to take a step back, examine the flaws with the current CRC plan and ensure that Oregon is not voting on a project that the Washington Legislature will not approve,” the letter read. It later continued: “Please join us in rejecting the current Columbia River Crossing proposal and consider ways that we can make this bridge project satisfy motorists’ current and future needs of our I-5 corridor, while protecting our taxpayers who will be required to pay for the project.”
The letter was signed by nine Republicans in the 18th, 14th, 17th and 20th legislative districts. It was addressed to Oregon Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, and House Minority Leader Mike McLane.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.