U.S. House plan offers no money for CRC

Senate drafting its own version of transportation budget

By Eric Florip and Stevie Mathieu

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A transportation budget proposed this week in the U.S. House doesn’t provide any money to finance an $850 million federal grant for the Columbia River Crossing project, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler said Tuesday.

The legislation is just one spending proposal being considered by Congress; the Senate is drafting its own version.

The House bill, which would cover the 2014 fiscal year, only includes $1.68 billion for the federal New Starts grants program. CRC planners are banking on a $850 million New Starts grant to pay for the construction of light rail on a new Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River.

The House transportation spending plan doles out that $1.68 billion to 17 other projects around the country, from Honolulu to New York. Unlike the CRC project, those 17 other projects have already met Federal Transit Administration permitting and funding rules for the New Starts program, Herrera Beutler said. CRC planners are still waiting on some of the pieces of their project to fall into place.

The budget proposal’s $1.68 billion in New Starts money is “the exact amount needed to fund the other 17 projects in the House Appropriations bill,” Herrera Beutler’s spokesman, Casey Bowman, wrote in an email. “So even if the CRC were to surmount the huge permitting and local funding hurdles in front of it, there would still be no federal money available for it or any other New Starts project in (fiscal year) 2014.”

Herrera Beutler, R-Camas and a CRC critic, helped write the 2014 transportation spending bill, along with her colleagues on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies. The subcommittee is expected to approve the legislation this week, according to Herrera Beutler’s office. After that, the bill must go through additional steps, including a vote by the entire House.

The Senate is working to write its own transportation budget for 2014, however. The Senate transportation appropriations subcommittee is chaired by longtime CRC supporter Patty Murray.

The CRC project would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, extend a light-rail line from Portland to Vancouver and rebuild nearby freeway interchanges.

FTA rules require that local funding be in place before a project is eligible for a federal New Starts grant. For the CRC, that means lining up money from both states, and securing operations funding for light rail in Vancouver. That hasn’t happened yet. Project leaders are hoping to have state and local money committed this year so it can apply for the $850 million New Starts grant this fall. If approved, the grant would be paid in smaller chunks over several years, paying for the construction of light rail.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and other top officials have said the CRC is well-positioned for that money should the other pieces of the finance plan fall into place. But the FTA hasn’t guaranteed anything to the CRC, and won’t accept its grant application until they do. Herrera Beutler issued a statement Tuesday reiterating that requirement.

“The existing law is clear,” Herrera Beutler said. “In order to obtain a transit grant, project sponsors need to have funding in place to pay for operation and maintenance of light rail.”

The CRC also must secure crucial permits from the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other agencies as it moves toward construction. Planners say they hope to start construction in late 2014, a schedule one oversight group has called “highly optimistic.”

Herrera Beutler’s statement also characterized the failure of a November light-rail ballot measure as a mandate against light rail on the proposed bridge. That measure would have raised sales taxes in the C-Tran district to pay for the operation and maintenance of light rail in Vancouver. Its failure has prompted C-Tran officials to research other ways to cover that cost.

“Last November, Clark County residents rejected light rail when they overwhelmingly voted not to pay for it, and I pledged to act in accordance with their wishes,” Herrera Beutler said. “Clark County voters know that ultimately they will pay more of the cost of this project than any other group of taxpayers, and we should respect their wishes when it comes to light rail. …Let’s concentrate on building a bridge that can safely and efficiently move people, goods and services and can actually earn the support of the taxpayers and commuters who will pay for it.”

Herrera Beutler has called for a redesign of the CRC that would exclude a light-rail line. Murray and other CRC supporters say redesigning the bridge puts the project at risk of losing federal money and would set a bridge replacement back at least a decade.


Columbian staff writer Eric Florip contributed to this story. Stevie Mathieu: 360-735-4523 or www.facebook.com/reportermathieu or www.twitter.com/col_politics or stevie.mathieu@columbian.com