Bill eyes tolls to pay for state's CRC share

Sen. Cleveland's 'Plan B' would also rely on fuel taxes if lawmakers do not approve funding

By Eric Florip and Stevie Mathieu

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photoState Senator Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver.

Drivers could pay even more in tolls to cross the Columbia River if a backup plan to pay Washington's share of the Columbia River Crossing is passed.

State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, introduced a bill late Thursday that would let the state borrow $450 million in bonds for the CRC project. Those bonds would then be repaid through tolling and fuel-tax revenue.

CRC leaders already are banking on tolls to generate as much as $1.3 billion toward the $3.4 billion project. Washington and Oregon are both expected to come up with $450 million as to help pay for the CRC. Other money would come from federal sources.

"This is a Plan B," Cleveland said by phone on Thursday. "This bill isn't the preferred course for our state to identify funding for this project. Ideally, this project should be part of the transportation budget, and it's my hope that that's going to be the case."

Cleveland said she would rather see legislators include Washington's $450 million share in a broad transportation funding package.

Last month, House Democrats rolled out a nearly $10 billion package that would pay for several of the state's transportation needs through a hike in gas taxes, among other revenue sources. That plan included the money needed for the CRC.

House Republicans, who bristled at a gas tax increase, said they will unveil their own transportation package on Monday. Republicans' plan will focus on cutting transportation costs rather than paying for specific projects.

If the CRC doesn't make it into a transportation funding package, Senate Bill 5864 will allow the project to stay on track by dedicating that $450 million some other way.

"I felt it was important to have alternatives out there and available," Cleveland said.

If her bill passes, Cleveland said more research would need to figure out how much of that $450 million would be paid back with tolls, and how much of it would be repaid with fuel tax revenue. Her bill is signed by 20 other Democrats in the Senate, which has a slim conservative majority.

In addition to replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge, the CRC would extend light rail into Vancouver and rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River. Project leaders are hoping to begin construction by late 2014, meaning both states will have to commit money this year for that to happen.

Officials don't yet know exactly how tolls will pencil out — an investment-grade analysis now under way isn't expected to be finished until late this year, and earlier projections were found to be inflated and unrealistic. Cleveland's bill would create an even greater reliance on tolling revenue to help cover the CRC's overall cost.