OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee insists that it is “now or never” on securing $450 million in state money for the replacement of the bridge connecting Interstate 5 between Vancouver and Portland.
It appears that supporters of the Columbia River Crossing had best hope that is not the case.
Two key members of the Washington state Senate on Friday threw cold water on the prospects for putting up the money that Inslee says is necessary to keep the estimated $3.1 billion project on track — and to attract up to $1.2 billion in federal support.
Oregon lawmakers in March committed $450 million toward the project, contingent on Washington state doing the same.
Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, co-chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said that “we will not pass hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Legislature this session” for the project.
Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina, said that any transportation revenue package — such as the one floated in the Democratic-controlled House that would include a 10-cent hike in the gas tax — would have to be “decoupled” from the Columbia River Crossing project.
Project supporters argue that the current bridge is a congestion point on a key corridor connecting Canada to Mexico and is built atop nearly 100-year-old wooden pilings that are reaching the end of their useful life. They note that more than a decade of planning has gone into the project, and that the Obama administration has labeled it one of the nation’s key transportation priorities.
Accepting an invitation from Inslee, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday visited Olympia, telling state lawmakers that it is time to “fish or cut bait” on the project, which he said was unlike any other in the country in terms of potential for spurring economic activity.
Calling LaHood’s visit “a power play,” King said he did not believe the “now or never” message to be credible.
“(LaHood) comes in and says if you don’t do it now you’re going to lose it,” King said. “We’ve heard that for five years. You’re telling me that if we decide we want to do this (at a later date) that the federal money is not going to be there? Where’s it going to go?”
Opposition to the project largely comes down to the inclusion in it of light rail. Project opponents, notably Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, point out that Clark County voters last November rejected a 0.1 percent increase in their sales tax to help pay for the light rail aspect of the project.
They also say the bridge as currently conceived is too low, and that three businesses upriver of the bridge would likely have to relocate because they would be unable to fit their goods under a bridge with 116 feet of clearance. The current span is roughly 50 feet higher and, unlike its planned replacement, is a drawbridge.
The main problem with raising the bridge, those involved with the project say, is making it too steep to safely include light rail.
The Senate majority, consisting of 23 Republicans joined by two Democrats, also called on Friday for Inslee to initiate an investigation into what they describe as suspected cost overruns in the project thus far.
Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith, responding to King and Tom’s comments, said the governor remains steadfast in his commitment to the project.
“The CRC is absolutely one of the pieces we want to see included in a transportation revenue package,” Smith said. “At this point, that’s what we’re going to be working toward.”