PORTLAND — Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced Monday that they have chosen the flat, less-expensive deck truss-style option to replace the aging Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River.
In a joint press conference on Hayden Island, the governors said that while the flat-deck-style bridge is less aesthetically pleasing than the taller cable stay bridge design that was also under consideration, choosing the simpler design will help the project stay on time and on budget.
The state leaders said that obtaining a federal Record of Decision approving the bridge plan by the end of the year keeps the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing project in the queue for $1.3 billion in federal highway and transit money.
Monday marked the final step in the official debate over the outlines of the design, after more than a decade of planning and $130 million in costs. Both governors said that their goal is to break ground in 2013 on a project that includes five miles of interchange improvements and a bridge with both light rail and tolling.
“Now is the time, today is the day, we’ve taken the advice of counsel,” Gregoire said. “The only way we get federal dollars is by making a decision. We have listened and listened and listened to the public at large. We have listened to experts, as we should. That’s why this project is moving forward. One thing I can guarantee you … is that some point along process line, somebody has to stand up and make a decision.”
Kitzhaber said that three elements — the bridge’s design, the project’s financing and creating a multi-modal transportation project — are all interdependent and shouldn’t be viewed in isolation.
He said he preferred the more expensive, but more attractive, cable stay bridge, as did Portland Mayor Sam Adams and Metro President Tom Hughes. Both the deck truss and cable stay bridges would have been cheaper than the open-web box girder design that the governors rejected in February, following an independent review that found the girder design was likely unsound and overpriced. But the cable stay design would require more design work and possibly a supplemental environmental impact statement, he said.
“(It) would not only cost more, it would carry us out of the timing window for federal financing,” Kitzhaber said. “If we miss this window, we not only put at risk the overall project financing, but also the $800 million in federal funding for light rail.”
Tax package possible
Gregoire told reporters after the announcement that losing federal money doesn’t mean that the project would be killed, but that $1.3 billion would be shifted to Oregon and Washington taxpayers and mean higher tolls. The Washington Legislature late last week approved $37 million for additional design, planning and land acquisition for the project over the next two years.
Rep. Jim Moeller D-Vancouver, who sits on the House Transportation Committee, said he worked to win the $37 million and will be meeting with Oregon legislators soon to encourage them to match that level of funding.
“We need to work together,” he said. “There hasn’t been as much support from the Oregon side as from the Washington side, although Oregon did provide $50 million two years ago.”
Moeller also said it’s very likely the Legislature will go to voters next year with a new tax package to fund state transportation projects. A 9.5-cent state gas tax increase approved by the Legislature in 2005 and upheld by voters has not stretched to cover all the projects it was intended to fund.
Besides the gas tax, the Legislature might consider a tax based on vehicle miles traveled, Moeller said.
“We’re going to have to move away from simply taxing gasoline because that’s a decreasing revenue source,” he said.
Public transit push
The governors said they met twice this year with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and LaHood called the CRC a model project for the entire nation. Kitzhaber said that’s because it changes the “paradigm” of car-only highway systems that’s been the mind-set since the federal highway system was created in the 1950s.
Light rail and tolling, Kitzhaber said, “creates incentives for people to get out of cars,” and while light rail partially encourages that, tolling is a necessary financial incentive to “create a pressure to inspire” people to use that public transit.
The governors said they favor higher tolls during peak use hours. After the meeting, the governors also said they haven’t ruled out the idea of tolling Interstate 205, to keep down congestion from those going out of their way to dodge tolls on I-5.
Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt — who stood behind the governors during the announcement along with other members of the Project Sponsors Council — said he was happy the governors made a decision that moves the CRC along.
“Ideally, I think our (city) council felt some aesthetic components of the project would be preferable,” he said, referring to the cable stay bridge. “But ultimately we landed on wanting a design that ensures we’re in line for federal funding.”
The mayor said Clark County does want light rail, and called opponents a “loud minority and some paid lobbyists.”
He called tolling a “delicate issue” for residents, but said it is a decision that ultimately falls to the state legislatures.
“I recognize that, and I certainly will continue to lobby and fight on behalf of folks to keep tolls as low as possible,” Leavitt said.
Gregoire and Kitzhaber also announced new oversight from the Oregon and Washington legislatures and the two state treasurers. They have asked state legislators and treasurers to immediately begin working with the Departments of Transportation to review and refine the financing plan and toll revenue assumptions.
A bistate approach will minimize financial risks and provide accountability and oversight, they said.
The design decision makes a cost estimate much more clear, and project cost estimates will be updated to incorporate the deck truss design this spring. Next, the plan is to add architects to the project team and establish architectural specifications for a bridge design contract.
To break ground in 2013, a number of tight deadlines will have to be met. First, the Project Sponsors Council, made up of representatives from Oregon and Washington, must publish the Final Environmental Impact Statement this summer, and then they must receive the federal Record of Decision by the end of the year.
Columbian reporter Kathie Durbin contributed to this report.
Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.