Lawmakers: Washington not revisiting CRC

Oregon appear to be on its own in trying to replace I-5 Bridge

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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A panel of legislative leaders signaled Thursday that there's no interest in bringing Washington back to the table on the Columbia River Crossing.

What's more, state transportation officials haven't spoken in earnest with their Oregon counterparts about the beleaguered megaproject in months, said Washington Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson.

"We have not really had any formal conversations whatsoever," Peterson said.

In other words, it appears the Oregon-led plan to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge is the project's last chance at materializing. The Oregon Legislature is expected to consider doubling down on the $2.7 billion CRC when it convenes next month. Lawmakers in Salem committed funding to the project last year, only to see Washington walk away without authorizing any money of its own.

But transportation continues to loom large in Olympia as lawmakers prepare to kick off the 2014 regular session next week. Leaders have spent recent months negotiating a broad revenue package that would raise upwards of $10 billion after an earlier version stalled in 2013. Many backers, including Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, are hoping to revive it this year.

But Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, appeared to slam the door shut on including the CRC in any transportation package this year. That was seen as one of the biggest hang-ups in 2013.

"There would be no way that we could get a package out with the CRC in it," Eide said Thursday during a transportation panel hosted by the Associated Press and broadcast by TVW. Money that had been marked for the CRC has shifted to another megaproject, she said: the Highway 520 Bridge replacement in Seattle.

Megaproject problems

Two active megaprojects, and the problems plaguing them, dominated much of Thursday's discussion. Some lawmakers wondered whether recent blunders and setbacks will undermine the case for a new transportation package, which could be financed largely by a 11.5-cent-per-gallon increase in the state fuel tax.

A design error in the Highway 520 project reportedly pushed its price tag up by at least $170 million, to nearly $2.9 billion. Meanwhile, a giant tunnel boring machine, part of the $3.1 billion Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement project, has been stalled under Seattle for weeks as crews work to remove an obstruction.

"When my constituents look at that, they say, 'What are you guys doing?'" said Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. He and others have called for better oversight and reforms to prevent future mishaps and cost overruns.

"We have to fix these problems before we move forward with anything else," Orcutt said.

Previous negotiations on a transportation package haven't produced a deal so far. Specific details are scant, but earlier versions showed a project list with relatively little for Clark County — just $41 million for four projects at one point. Local leaders have said they'd like to see far more included for this region before asking residents to pay for it.

Inslee has so far struck out in getting the Legislature to act on any comprehensive transportation package. He came up empty during a twice-extended legislative session last spring, then another special session in November. On Thursday, he insisted that 2014 is the year to get it done.

"If the Legislature is unable to produce a package this year, we are going to see not only long-term problems, but short-term problems," Inslee said.

The governor said failure to act on transportation could affect ferry and transit service. He suggested that the Highway 520 project may not be fully financed and completed without action. The westernmost leg of the project, where Highway 520 connects with I-5, remains unfunded, according to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Leaders negotiating the transportation package have cited progress, but key philosophical issues still separate the two parties. Among the main sticking points are a Republican-backed proposal to end the state's practice of charging itself sales tax on transportation projects, and funding levels for transit versus pavement, Inslee said.

Inslee said he'd like to see the Republican-dominated majority in the Senate pass its own transportation package this year, then reconcile that with the version approved by the House last year. That will require compromise, he said.

Inslee also rejected the notion that possible action on climate change, such as new rules on carbon fuel standards, should have any impact on the transportation discussion. Critics have said such a move would raise fuel prices on top of any tax hike being considered.

"I would hope that people would focus on solutions here rather than excuses," the governor said.