PORTLAND — Oregon lawmakers must act this fall to recommit money to the Columbia River Crossing, or the project’s schedule and political support will unravel, Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matthew Garrett told a group of business leaders and citizens in Portland on Wednesday.
The Oregon Legislature wrapped up a three-day special session earlier this month that did not include the CRC. Lawmakers will have to come back to Salem before their next regular session in February if the project has any hope of starting construction in December 2014 as planned, Garrett said.
“I want to be clear. That conversation needs to happen right now,” Garrett said. “I do believe we are at a hinge moment on this project.”
Garrett made the remarks during a breakfast forum hosted by the Columbia Corridor Association, a business advocacy group, and the City Club of Portland. His declaration of urgency came a day after three Democratic legislators from Clark County, all supporters of the CRC, indicated they view the latest push as a long shot.
Even with slim odds, Garrett reiterated recent claims that delaying the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement would ultimately add to its cost and risk losing the favor of top federal partners.
“The world will not wait for the Columbia River Crossing, because other communities are moving forward, and rightly so,” he said.
Project leaders are now pursuing the CRC as an Oregon-led effort with a $2.7 billion price tag. The revised proposal would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail to Vancouver and impose tolls on the span, but leave out most freeway work on the Washington side of the river.
Washington pulled out of the project financially when lawmakers in Olympia adjourned without authorizing any money for the CRC earlier this year. Planners are now working around the Washington Legislature by giving sole responsibility — and financial risk — to Oregon.
But before the project happens, the Oregon Legislature must reauthorize a $450 million commitment that lapsed after Washington didn’t put up money of its own. At least one key voice in Salem, Senate President Peter Courtney, has said he’s not interested in another special session for the CRC. If it comes up again, it should wait until February, Courtney has said.
Waiting that long would set the CRC back at least a year, Garrett said Wednesday. Without a financial commitment from Oregon in place, the project leaders can’t secure the federal grants and loans needed to pay for the CRC, he said. Among those is an $850 million grant for light rail that planners are hoping to get through the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program.
Despite Garrett’s call for action, past CRC deadlines have proven to be overstated. Project leaders had long said that key financial pieces had to be in place by Sept. 30 for the project to stay on track. That date has come and gone, yet supporters are still making the now-or-never claim.
The CRC may have already blown another timeline it submitted to the FTA last month. In materials submitted as part of the New Starts process, project planners included a schedule that listed a change to Oregon’s funding law in October 2013. So far, there’s been no indication that will happen in the next week.
In the same document, CRC officials told the FTA that “a special session of the Oregon Legislature is expected soon to consider such an amendment.” Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has indicated he’s open to another session for the CRC, but has never stated publicly that it’s a sure thing.
“The governor has a sense of urgency and agrees with Senator Courtney that hearings are the appropriate next step,” Kitzhaber spokesman Tim Raphael said in an email. “He continues to work with legislative leaders on the timing.”