Kitzhaber: CRC will die without action by March

Governor says Oregon must recommit to $2.7B project by March

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Kitzhaber's letter on CRC

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Oregon will pull the plug on the Columbia River Crossing in March unless its Legislature recommits to the $2.7 billion project, Gov. John Kitzhaber said in a letter sent to lawmakers on Monday.

Kitzhaber, a Democrat, said the Oregon Legislature must act on the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement by March 9, the last scheduled day of its 2014 session. If not, Oregon will close the project and begin archiving materials, Kitzhaber said.

“Oregon must either decisively move the project to construction or refocus and reprioritize our resources,” Kitzhaber wrote. “A project in limbo is the worst and most expensive outcome for Oregon, and continuing expenditures to sustain work without progress is a waste of money and resources.”

Leaders are now chasing an Oregon-led version of the CRC after Washington’s Legislature pulled out last year. Such a plan would replace the I-5 Bridge and extend light rail into Vancouver, but eliminate most freeway work on the Washington side of the river. The project would be financed mainly by toll revenue and federal money, but must first get a green light from the Oregon Legislature.

Kitzhaber’s letter isn’t the first time CRC backers have attempted to use deadlines to ratchet up political pressure. Last year, officials repeatedly claimed that the project needed both states’ commitment in 2013 to seize a closing window of opportunity. When that didn’t happen, planners pressed on anyway.

And last June, when Washington authorized no funding for the CRC, it was Kitzhaber who said “neither state can incur the further costs of delay” in announcing that managers had “begun to close down the project.” Within a few months, Kitzhaber was behind the pared-down plan that’s now dragged the debate into 2014.

More than $180 million has already been spent on planning.

The Oregon Legislature approved the CRC last year. But many lawmakers have balked at doing so again with greater financial risk and all the debt burden shifted to Oregon. A key supporter of the CRC in Oregon, state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said earlier this month he believes Oregon “is done” with the issue, and the CRC won’t make it to a vote. The Oregon Legislature convenes Feb. 3.

Kitzhaber pointed to recent reports showing that the revised CRC is financially and legally possible. But the project still needs key intergovernmental agreements — which don’t require legislative approval — between the two states to work. Kitzhaber said he also wants “appropriate action” from Washington by March 15.

Among the unanswered questions is how Oregon can legally collect tolls from Washington drivers who don’t pay. In a separate letter to lawmakers on Monday, Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett said the two states are looking for ways to resolve that and other questions.

The Washington State Department of Transportation is one of the agencies that ODOT will have to engage to hammer out all the necessary agreements for the project to happen. But WSDOT spokesman Lars Erickson said Monday that his agency hasn’t had any substantial conversations with Oregon officials on the CRC in months.

Kitzhaber’s letter urged lawmakers to act on the CRC even if those crucial agreements aren’t finalized. Instead, the governor suggested making them a condition in any bill authorizing Oregon funds for the project.