Oregon leaders to take up CRC

Legislative hearing today could help gauge support

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SALEM, Ore. — A year after they authorized $450 million in debt to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River, Oregon legislators are nearing a decision about whether to do so again, this time without the state of Washington as a partner.

Lawmakers have a hearing today in advance of the monthlong legislative session in February. It could test whether there's enough support for Gov. John Kitzhaber's hopes to have Oregon go it alone on the bridge project.

"I think the answer to that depends on what we hear tomorrow and what people's appetite is coming out," said Rep. Tobias Read, a Beaverton Democrat who leads the joint House and Senate committee created to study the bridge project.

Experts concluded last week that the bridge would generate enough tolling revenue to pay off the debt. But big questions remain. Chief among them: Can Oregon collect tolls from Washington drivers who try to evade them? And what will happen to traffic on the area's other Columbia crossing, at Interstate 205?

The committee, comprising a quarter of all state lawmakers, won't make any decisions at today's hearing but will hear about the project and ask questions.

A proposal to fund the bridge with money from Oregon, Washington, tolling revenue and the federal government fell apart last year when key Washington lawmakers objected to the project's extension of Portland's light-rail network into Vancouver. Oregon is now considering going forward on its own, dropping planned highway improvements on the Washington side of the bridge. Other transportation priorities have eclipsed the Columbia River bridge in Washington state.

Replacing the bridge is a priority for Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek, who have touted the benefits to businesses, the jobs it would create and the potential for reduced congestion. It also has strong backing from the business community and labor unions. Senate President Peter Courtney is more skeptical and has said he'd prefer solid agreements with Washington state.

State Treasurer Ted Wheeler told legislative leaders in a letter last week that the project pencils out if the assumptions behind a traffic analysis hold true, but only if Oregon can be certain it can collect the tolls from Washington residents. The state must have sole authority to set toll rates, with input but not approval from Washington, he said.

"In short: While the project is badly needed — it must also make sense from a financial perspective," Wheeler wrote.