Interstate bridge called possible, with challenges

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PORTLAND — A top official in the Oregon state treasurer's office says a bridge to Washington over the Columbia River could be viable if several stringent conditions are met.

In a memo to State Treasurer Ted Wheeler obtained by The Oregonian, Laura Lockwood-McCall says the U.S. Coast Guard must grant a bridge permit by Sept. 30. Next, the Oregon Department of Justice must find it legal for the state to construct parts of the project in Washington.

Finally, the two states must enter construction and tolling agreements giving Oregon exclusive control over toll rates.

Washington's Senate failed in June to contribute matching funds for the bridge.

Even if those conditions are met, money must be found to cover annual light-rail operating costs for the extension to Vancouver.

Then Congress must award an $850 million light-rail grant early next year. And the Federal Highway Administration has to give a $900 million loan to Oregon by next summer.

In addition, The Oregon Legislature must meet in special session by month's end, removing a requirement for matching funds from Washington.

Lockwood-McCall is director of the treasurer's debt management division.

"An analysis of the basic funding plan based on the cost projections provided by CRC staff suggests that the revised project is financially viable at current interest rates, even under the most pessimistic toll revenue assumptions," Lockwood-McCall wrote.

Born in 1999 of discussions among transportation committees in Oregon and Washington, plans for the project ran up a $171 million bill by April 2013, according to the project's public financial documents.

Beset by a laundry list of concerns that included cost, pollution, aviation, security, geology, architecture and the political viability of raising tolls to pay off the bridge, even the name, "Columbia River Crossing," became a tainted vexation, replaced in later reports from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber with "The Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Program."

Elements also included a possible light-rail connection between Portland and Vancouver, an option that faced local opposition in Washington state and from state Senate members from the southwest Washington region.