GOP vows transportation savings

Bills the public may see Monday described as reform before spending

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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Those trying to predict whether Washington lawmakers will dole out $450 million this year for the Columbia River Crossing might not be any more enlightened Monday, when House Republicans plan to unveil a package of transportation bills.

Unlike the House Democrats' transportation package, a funding proposal that specifically marks $450 million for the CRC project, the Republicans' bill package is not about funding projects. Instead, it focuses on proposed reforms aimed at reducing the state's transportation costs, said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.

If those savings are achieved, Orcutt said, Republicans might be willing to put some of those savings toward the state's most crucial transportation needs.

"Bottom line: We're trying to make taxpayer dollars go farther before we go farther into taxpayers' pockets," Orcutt said Friday. "If we can pass all of our reforms and get very significant savings, then we may be able to support a little bit of added revenue to address some of the most pressing transportation issues."

Specifics of the Republican's transportation package won't be available until Monday.

During a press conference this week, House Republicans criticized the transportation plan proposed by their Democratic counterparts.

The Democrats' package would allocate nearly $10 billion to the transportation system and is projected to create 56,000 jobs during 10 years. It would be paid for by a gas tax increase of 2 cents every year for five years, a 0.07 percent excise tax on vehicles, bonds, and other fees.

"You're going to basically make it harder for families to pay the bills, and you're giving their hard-earned money to an organization that isn't necessarily spending money correctly," said House Republican Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis.

During the conference, state Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said that if conditions are right, 2013 might be the year to pass a package to pay for many of the state's transportation priorities. But first, he said, he wants to know: "How do we reduce costs?"

The Democrats' transportation funding plan has "zero reforms, zero cost-saving measures," Schoesler said. "We understand the need to fund transportation, but for the public to have confidence in government, they have to see something different than the 520 bridge or the Columbia River Crossing bridge for us to be able to go forward."

This fix-it-before-you-fund-it mentality has been echoed by Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, especially when it comes to the CRC.

"That bridge as designed today is not a bridge of the future," Harris said this week. "I don't want to fund that bridge. Would I fund a bridge? Absolutely."

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.

Lucas Wiseman of The Columbian/Murrow News Service contributed to this story.

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