As legislators face a decision on whether to commit $450 million this year toward the Columbia River Crossing project, lobbying and advertising efforts have increased ahead of a special legislative session that begins today.
Critics of the embattled CRC project have hired lobbyists from two firms to convince state lawmakers that they can hold off on paying Washington’s share of the project and redesign the bridge to exclude light rail. They are asking lawmakers to support express buses on the bridge instead of light rail, state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said.
Those lobbyists are Stephen Buckner of Millennia Public Affairs and Denny Eliason and Kim Clauson of Alliances Northwest. Buckner and Eliason are well-known in Olympia and often lobby on behalf of big businesses.
The group that hired the lobbyists to address the CRC goes by the name of The I-5 Project Inc. It describes itself as a “coalition supporting transportation solutions for the I-5 corridor in the Greater Vancouver area,” according to documents obtained from the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.
Cleveland was one of the legislators lobbied by the I-5 Project group during the two weeks between the 2013 regular legislative session and the special session beginning today. The 30-day special session is necessary because lawmakers have yet to come to an agreement on the state’s operating budget.
Cleveland said the lobbyists traveled to Vancouver to meet with her, but that meeting hasn’t changed her mind on the CRC. She told the lobbyists that the changes to the CRC they’re advocating for, as harmless as they may seem, will sink the $3.4 billion Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project.
“I’ve talked to some of the Oregon members of the Legislature, and I don’t believe there is any willingness to revisit this issue,” Cleveland said of the idea to replace light rail on the bridge with more buses. She added that increased bus service was one of several options weighed when Oregon and Washington worked out a compromise on the bridge, but, ultimately, both states agreed to light rail.
The Oregon Legislature this year approved putting up its $450 million share of the CRC, but that proposal is contingent on whether Washington does the same this year.
“The decision in front of us is a compromise,” Cleveland said. “The special session is going to require everyone’s willingness to come together. … I’m still very hopeful that logic and reason will prevail.”
Washington lawmakers have proposed a transportation revenue package that would raise taxes and fees to pay for many of the state’s transportation needs, including that $450 million for the CRC. That plan is expected to be debated in Olympia during the special session.
The proposal has a chance of success in the Democratic-led House, but it could stall in the Republican-led Senate. Members of the majority coalition in the Senate have said this year might not be the right time to pass the package, and they’ve also said they don’t support the CRC’s current design.
Alliances Northwest also lobbies for big businesses such as Amazon.com, Dell, BP America, and Starbucks, according to PDC data. Millennia Public Affairs was employed this year by Johnson & Johnson, Metlife, DirectTV and Tesoro.
Both firms will be paid $10,000 for lobbying on behalf of the I-5 Project during the special session, and they’ll also be reimbursed for any expenses related to their lobbying, according to records filed with the PDC. The lobbyist registration forms fail to list the names of significant donors to the I-5 Project coalition, and the PDC is working with the group to file that required information, PDC spokeswoman Lori Anderson said last week.
Mark Engleman, a precinct committee officer for the Clark County Republican Party, is listed as the I-5 Project’s treasurer. He did not return a phone call or email from The Columbian on Friday.
Advocates of the CRC project have also stepped up their efforts in recent weeks.
The Columbia River Crossing Coalition, a private group funded largely by business and labor interests, earlier this month paid for a radio ad designed to reach local commuters. The 15-second spot is running during rush hour times, and it shows:
“Stuck in traffic because of the I-5 Bridge? Want that old bridge replaced?” a voice begins. “Send lawmakers in Olympia a message … tell them you want more lanes, more choices, and no more lifts.”
The ad came on the heels of a YouTube video the CRC Coalition posted and sent to lawmakers last month. In it, backers convey a similar message, urging the Legislature to move now to support the project.
Meeting planned Tuesday
Not all CRC-related jostling is focused on Olympia. On May 3, a letter from several Republicans urged the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council and C-Tran to withdraw their support of the project. Both are sponsoring agencies of the CRC.
The letter notes the project’s bridge height and light rail among other reasons for opposing the CRC, and says the state Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus will not provide construction funding for the CRC until those issues are fixed. Last year, a proposed sales tax that would have covered the annual operation cost of light rail was rejected by voters.
“The message is clear: The CRC project as currently designed with light rail is not a workable solution for Washington,” the letter read. It was signed by state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, along with Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver; Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver; and Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama.
The letter comes as C-Tran approaches a major decision point. Agency leaders still haven’t decided how — or if — to proceed on local light-rail funding in the wake of last year’s ballot measure failure. Two weekend workshop meetings earlier this year failed to produce a clear consensus among C-Tran board members.
The C-Tran board will hold a special meeting on Tuesday focused entirely on the CRC, where project staff will be present. The agenda also includes public comment.
The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Vancouver Community Library, 901 C St. The board will convene again on May 21, possibly to reach a decision on light rail.