Legislators jostle to promote attitudes on CRC

Supporters, opponents make their cases to a statewide audience

By Eric Florip and Stevie Mathieu

Published:

 
photoVehicles cross the Interstate Bridge in January 2012.

(/The Columbian)

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Earlier this month, state Rep. Jim Moeller discovered a handout had been slipped under his office door blasting the Columbia River Crossing, a transportation project the Vancouver Democrat says is his top priority this legislative session.

The flier, which listed 10 reasons the CRC should be stopped, came from a familiar political adversary: state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver. Soon, Moeller and other Democrats from Clark County were circulating handouts of their own, countering points made often by CRC critics and stressing the importance of securing state money for the project by the end of the 2013 legislative session, which is scheduled April 28.

"My No. 1 priority is finding $450 million to keep this project on track," Moeller said.

It's one example of the politicking in Olympia as a critical hurdle for the CRC approaches. Although most legislators from other parts of the state have paid little attention to Clark County's transportation needs, the county's legislators, who remain split on the CRC, are telling their versions of the CRC story to fellow lawmakers. Anyone who steps into Benton's office knows his stance immediately. An anti-CRC sticker on the door greets visitors as they walk in.

Clark County Republicans in the Legislature are painting the CRC as an example of government failure -- lined with pork, badly mismanaged, detrimental to upstream businesses on the Columbia River, and complete with a light-rail line that the community doesn't want. They're calling for a project redesign.

Most of the county's Democratic legislators, meanwhile, say redesigning the CRC will set the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement back for a generation. The CRC as proposed must move forward as a matter of public safety and economic growth, they say.

Advocates on both sides are using a lull in activity to make their best cases now. After a fast-tracked funding bill sailed through the Oregon Legislature, Washington lawmakers have shown no such urgency on the CRC or a handful of other megaprojects. Instead, the state budget and education have taken priority.

But close followers of the CRC know their moment is coming.

"Transportation is going to be an end game this session," said Rick Wickman, a lobbyist representing Identity Clark County and the Port of Vancouver, among other clients.

"Right now it's sort of been pushed to the back burner."

A numbers game

As the pieces of the CRC fall into place, supporters and opponents of the project are turning their attention to the Washington state Senate in particular.

That's where one of the biggest hurdles to the CRC effort remains, and where CRC critics appear best positioned to derail the $3.4 billion megaproject. Supporters of the CRC say their best hope in footing the state's share of the project's bill is through a broad transportation package, but it remains uncertain whether enough senators support that idea.

In addition to replacing the I-5 Bridge, the CRC would rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the river and extend Portland's light-rail system to Clark College. Backers are pushing forward even as logistical and financial questions remain unresolved.

CRC planners say Washington state needs to dedicate at least a portion of its $450 million share this year, or the project could face significant setbacks. Oregon has already passed a bill through its Legislature that dedicates its $450 million share -- but only if Washington lawmakers also put up money, and other conditions are met. Federal funds are expected to follow suit if all goes according to plan.

If paying Washington's share of the CRC comes down to a party-line vote in the Senate, opponents of the project could come out on top.

Republicans essentially control the Senate by one vote, because two philosophically conservative Democrats joined forces with the Senate's 23 Republicans this session, creating their own conservative majority caucus. Twenty-five of the 49-member body are in the conservative caucus, while 24 Senate Democrats make up the minority caucus.

The new conservative majority in the Senate also restructured some key committees, including the Senate Transportation Committee. That committee, which several lawmakers say has a history of bipartisan cooperation, is now co-chaired by one Republican and one minority Democrat. It has seven members from the minority caucus and nine from the majority caucus.

It's unclear whether all 25 members of the Senate's conservative caucus will unite against paying for the CRC, or against a transportation package that includes money for the project. State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said she believes all 24 members of the Democratic minority support the project. State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said she sees "a very good possibility" that all 25 members of the conservative majority will oppose it.

"It does seem to be a partisan issue," Cleveland said of the CRC, "but it shouldn't be that way."

Transportation package

Moeller and other CRC supporters hope they've found their path forward in a broad revenue package introduced in February. If approved, the transportation plan would serve as the vehicle for putting up the state's share of money for the CRC. And they're hoping legislators, some Republicans included, could be enticed to support a package that includes new money for projects in the lawmakers' own backyards.

Moeller has said some "political horse-trading" might be necessary to move a package forward this session. Withholding specifics, he and Cleveland both said they will be talking with key Republicans who might see a benefit to their own districts.

"It's pretty clear that the (Senate) Republicans are running the show over there, and they're not used to governing," Moeller said. "I think their understanding of what is going to be involved in a revenue package is new. Educating them is going to be essential about what the project is and what it means to Southwest Washington and to the entire corridor."

The transportation package introduced by House Democrats would steer $450 million toward the CRC.

The plan 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, a commercial gross weight fee increase of 15 percent, raising the tax on hazardous substances by 0.03 percent, and creating a $25 fee on bicycle sales of more than $500. The money would help pay for several of the state's megaprojects besides the CRC, including the North Spokane Corridor and widening Interstate 90 at Snoqualmie Pass.

House Democrats are reworking the revenue proposal to make it more palatable to opponents. Republicans in the House have hinted that they might be willing to support a transportation revenue package, either this year or next year -- if legislators first pass a series of reforms aimed at saving taxpayer money.

Pollster Stuart Elway's firm found this month that voters are not behind increasing the gas tax to pay for the state's transportation projects. According to the independent poll of 412 voters, 72 percent opposed increasing the gas tax and 62 percent opposed the car tab fee.

"I'm not convinced that there is going to be a transportation package this year," Rivers said. "There's not appetite among the public for that. … Putting something on the ballot that's doomed to failure seems rather fruitless."

If a tax package is passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor, it also must go to the voters for a nonbinding "tax advisory" vote, anti-tax advocate Tim Eyman has pointed out. That requirement stems from Initiative 1185, which voters approved last fall.

Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and co-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he wants the transportation funding package to go before voters for a binding vote.

"Any transportation proposal will be a burden on our citizens, and I believe they need to make the ultimate decision on how these projects are funded," King said. He's also said he would rather pass a transportation package next year instead of this year, and that he wants light rail dropped from the CRC.

His co-chair on the transportation committee, Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, holds a different view. She's visited Vancouver and walked across the I-5 Bridge, which "scares me to death," she said. "I sure as heck would be afraid to drive over that thing if we had an earthquake. It's a safety issue and we need to take care of it now."

Eide said she expects whatever transportation package the House passes to include money for the CRC. She said state lawmakers "would need to have our heads examined" if they turned away a federal grant to help pay for the much-needed project.

The CRC plans to apply for an $850 million Federal Transit Administration grant to build the light-rail extension, but can't do that until local funding is lined up. And the federal agency hasn't formally committed that, or any, money to the CRC.

'Fall-back' plans

If the transportation package idea doesn't gain traction this session, CRC leaders have said Washington needs to come up with at least $260 million to keep the project on track this year.

"That would require looking for existing funds," Cleveland said. She described that outcome as a "distant possibility."

Here's why: The state's revenue forecast, out this month, gave the state a roughly $1.2 billion budget hole to fill. Legislators also need to address a court mandate that they significantly increase K-12 education funding.

According to Senate rules, the two co-chairs on the Senate Transportation Committee have veto power over one another, Benton pointed out. Theoretically, if the committee introduced a budget that includes money for the CRC, King could use his veto power to stop it.

Cleveland and Moeller also have introduced companion legislation that would serve as a "Plan B" if a transportation package fails this year and if the transportation budget doesn't include money for the CRC. That proposal, which even sponsors say is not ideal, would place an even heavier burden on Clark County commuters to pay for the project.

The legislation would let the state borrow $450 million for the CRC project, repaid through tolling and fuel-tax revenue. CRC plans already assume up to $1.3 billion in toll revenue will go to construction. The backup bill would make the CRC even more reliant on tolls.

"We did want to ensure that we had a fall-back plan," Cleveland said.

If the proposal passes, Cleveland said, more research would be needed to figure out how much of that $450 million would be paid back with tolls, and how much with fuel tax revenue. The Senate bill is signed by 17 other Democrats, and the House bill is co-sponsored by another CRC supporter, Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.

If funding fails

After years of public debate about the CRC, Moeller said, the differences people have about the details of the bridge must take a back seat. Now is the time to build the project that's before us instead of considering a redesign, he said.

"What (CRC critics are) talking about is basically a delay of another generation before any bridge will be built," Moeller said. "That's unacceptable to me, because we need a new bridge. … Oregon has stepped up to the plate with its share. The federal government is there with its part. We need to step up."

It's true that significantly retooling the project would likely mean additional analysis and dollars spent. The CRC has already spent close to $170 million in planning to date. But the CRC has been delayed and redesigned before, even since its sprawling Final Environmental Impact Statement was published in 2011.

In response to CRC supporters who say failing to secure money this year will set the project back a generation, Rivers said she doesn't believe that to be the case. She cited a 2007 freeway collapse in Minneapolis as an example of quick action.

"Here's the reality," Rivers said. "After the bridge fell in Minnesota, it was about a year's time for them to get that done. If our federal senators are as powerful as they've been told that they are, then they can make some things happen."

End game

Rivers said she hasn't had to do much advocacy against the CRC as proposed, because her colleagues are becoming aware of the project's faults as they read up on the issue.

She does make sure to stay in contact with King, a heavy-hitter on transportation in the Senate.

Wickman and other lobbyists say lawmakers from all parts of the state are well aware of the CRC by now. But few insiders are willing to predict what they think will happen this year. Some say it's anyone's guess.

Rivers said she sees this much: Shining more light on the CRC and its shortcomings is giving plenty of legislators pause about moving it forward.

"I think more and more, people are hearing about it, and they're kind of scratching their heads," Rivers said. "When you say it out loud and it doesn't sound right, chances are, it's not right."


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.

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