Tuesday, March 21, 2023
March 21, 2023

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Obama budget plan includes cash for new bridge

Proposed $400M shows high-level interest in project


The Columbia River Crossing got a boost in President Barack Obama’s budget request to Congress this week, but the project is a long way from breaking ground.

Even so, the project’s co-director said he appreciates the high-level attention from Obama.

“These are not the same funds we’ve been talking with our delegation about,” project co-director Don Wagner told Vancouver city councilors on Monday. “This is a new pot of money.”

The president’s budget included $400 million to be made available in case the CRC or three other major transit projects across the country get on track earlier than anticipated. As it stands, construction of a new Interstate 5 bridge wouldn’t begin until 2013 at the earliest.

The Obama proposal would have to be approved by the Senate and House of Representatives — a dicey proposition.

Yet it can’t hurt to get the administration’s support for the multibillion-dollar highway and transit improvement project, local officials said.

Currently estimated to cost $3.6 billion, the project will replace the existing twin three-lane drawbridges with a 10-lane span across the river, improve five miles of freeway on both sides and extend Portland’s light-rail transit system into downtown Vancouver.

Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration, called the CRC a “critically needed” project during a conference call with reporters Tuesday.

“The existing bridge is inadequate and clearly needs replacement,” Rogoff said. “We are really keying on this project because WashDOT and all the other partners … are getting it right in that we’re going to build this big piece of infrastructure and combine all the highway and transit elements all at once.”

When the proposal is finalized later this year, project planners anticipate asking Rogoff’s agency to deliver $850 million in transit funding to construct light rail.

The team anticipates asking for another $400 million in federal highway funding, along with $900 million from the Washington and Oregon state legislatures. Planners anticipate the local funding share would make up the rest — bridge tolls paid by motorists crossing the bridge.

Yet tolls remain highly controversial, especially in Clark County.

Vancouver City Councilor Jeanne Stewart on Monday reiterated her objection to the proposal, calling tolls a regressive form of taxation that especially hurts low-income people who need to drive to Oregon for work.

“Tolls punish people for their choices,” she said.

A campaign has already begun in Clark County to defeat a ballot measure later this year that will ask voters to boost the sales tax. C-Tran’s board of directors is planning to ask voters to boost the sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent, which would generate $2 million to $3 million per year to operate and maintain the light rail extension in Vancouver. The increase would also pay for the local share of a new bus rapid transit line along Fourth Plain Boulevard.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a longtime supporter of light rail, argued Monday that Oregon elected leaders have made it clear that they won’t support the overall project without light rail.

“This isn’t a piecemeal project,” Leavitt said. “You do not build a bridge without light rail and without a local financing piece. This is all or none.”

Erik Robinson: 360-735-4551, or erik.robinson@columbian.com.