Inslee vetoes $81M for CRC

Governor still battling to get state to pay $450 million share

By Stevie Mathieu, Columbian assistant metro editor

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It's all or nothing, Gov. Jay Inslee indicated Monday in the battle to get $450 million for the Columbia River Crossing project.

Continuing to push for the new Columbia River bridge, he used his veto power to kill an $81 million budget provision for the controversial project. That money would have covered ongoing operating costs for CRC planners, and it could have been spent on a redesign if the project doesn't secure its Coast Guard permit.

"I see no wisdom in expending these funds ($81 million) if the state of Washington does not contribute its ($450 million) share of funding necessary to complete the project," Inslee wrote in a letter to the Washington Senate on Monday. If Washington doesn't commit $450, Inslee wrote, "the bridge project cannot move forward because federal funding will disappear."

Inslee's veto, which was one of about a dozen snips to the state's 2013-15 transportation budget, is not a sign that the governor is withdrawing his support for the CRC, his spokeswoman Jaime Smith said Monday. In fact, Inslee stood at the Capitol steps earlier on Monday to rally for a transportation tax package that includes the state's share of replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said Inslee's $81 million veto was stunning, disheartening and smacked of grandstanding. She said she would like to see the bridge redesigned to exclude light rail.

"We've said all along that we want a project -- we just want a project that really works," Rivers said Monday. "The Legislature gave the governor an option, and he just took it off the table. … It feels a lot like he just pulled the plug on the project."

Members of the Republican-led Senate have raised concerns about committing $450 million toward the CRC for a variety of reasons, including the project's inclusion of a light rail line, and the bridge's height, which isn't tall enough to allow the largest of river traffic to pass underneath it.

CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney said Monday that the loss of $81 million won't derail the project, as long as Washington lawmakers agree to put up the state's $450 million share of the building costs this year. Planning, right-of-way acquisitions and other operating costs are "all included in the $450 (million)," Putney said.

When lawmakers added $81 million for the CRC in the transportation budget, several legislators said the expense would help keep the lights on at the CRC's offices.

During the bill-writing process, state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, successfully added language to the transportation budget to withhold most of the $81 million until the U.S. Coast Guard approves a crucial permit for the CRC. That language, which was wiped out by Inslee's veto, would have required CRC planners to put that money toward a bridge redesign if the Coast Guard rejected the CRC's permit application.

"If the Coast Guard permit is not issued, there is no need for the waste of $81 million since no other option is viable," Inslee wrote in his letter to the Senate.

Inslee did not veto another part of the budget that requires the state to spend $200,000 on a forensic audit of the CRC project.

The governor and other supporters of the CRC say that replacing the I-5 Bridge will be set back at least a decade if the Washington Legislature fails to commit $450 million this year.

In addition to replacing the I-5 Bridge, the $3.4 billion CRC project would extend light rail from Portland into Vancouver and rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the bridge. Washington and Oregon are asked to jointly pay about a third of the CRC's total cost, and to commit that money this year. Plans call for federal funding sources and tolling to cover the rest of the project.

Because state lawmakers couldn't hammer out a deal on the state's operating budget, they reconvened in Olympia for a special session that could extend into next month. One of Inslee's top priorities during the session is the passage of a transportation package that raises gas taxes and other fees to pay for many of the state's transportation needs, including the CRC. Passing that package will require cooperation from the Senate.

Earlier on Monday, Inslee spoke at a rally at the Capitol in support of the transportation funding package, saying it's "crunch time" to pay for road projects and maintain existing roads and bridges. U.S. Rep. Denny Heck, formerly of Vancouver, was there to speak in support of the package, too.

The transportation package would raise the gas tax by 10 cents per gallon to help pay for maintenance of existing roads, as well as for a handful of pending big-ticket projects. It also would allow local governments to raise taxes and fees to help pay for mass transit.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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