SALEM, Ore. — A bill approving a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River would authorize $450 million in bonds to pay for Oregon’s share, but it doesn’t say how the state would pay off the debt over the coming decades.
State lawmakers heard public testimony on the topic Monday.
Paying down the bridge debt would cost roughly $30 million per year.
In the short term, the Oregon Department of Transportation can use unanticipated federal transportation dollars to cover the debt, lawmakers said. But after that money runs out in two to three years, the state would have to approve a new revenue source — such as a gas tax or vehicle fees — or reduce the amount of money available for other road projects.
“This is money that Oregon is going to need to repay,” said Mara Gross, interim director of the Coalition for a Livable Future, a group that promotes healthy and sustainable communities. “Without a funding mechanism, tens of millions per year will be cut from ODOT’s projects, and that’s funding from other roads and bridges and priority that could evaporate for decades.”
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said last week that she’d like to include a dedicated funding source for the bridge as part of a comprehensive transportation plan that would safeguard other road projects around the state, perhaps in the 2015 legislative session.
The entire project, anticipated to cost more than $3 billion, would include a new bridge and freeway interchanges on both sides and a light-rail link across the bridge. Oregon and Washington would have to each contribute $450 million, with the rest of the funding coming from the federal government and the tolls paid by bridge users.
The existing bridge is a chokepoint for traffic on I-5 and is vulnerable to collapse in a major earthquake. The proposed replacement has been a political hot potato for years on both sides of the Columbia.
Supporters include business groups that want to speed the flow of goods to and from ports in Portland and the Puget Sound. Labor groups are eager for thousands of construction jobs. Transit advocates want a light-rail link to Vancouver.
“If our manufacturers can’t get their products to the ports or out to their marketplace in an efficient, predictable and cost-effective manner, we will lose those great jobs and our families will suffer,” said Sandra McDonough, president and chief executive of the Portland Business Alliance, the chamber of commerce for metro Portland.
Critics are equally as varied. Neighborhood groups in Northeast Portland fear the project would increase congestion and pollution around other chokepoints farther south near downtown Portland. Anti-tax advocates think it’s an expensive, mismanaged boondoggle. Light-rail opponents think it’s a waste of money. Some environmentalists fear it encourages single-occupancy vehicles and would increase greenhouse-gas emissions.
The light-rail component is critical to securing federal funding, because federal officials prioritize projects that include multiple modes of transportation.
“Our streets are jammed with commuters avoiding the existing congestion,” David Sweet of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods told lawmakers Monday. “This project would do nothing but make that congestion worse by funneling increasing amounts of traffic into our neighborhoods.”
Even if Oregon approves its share, the project would still require approval from the U.S. Coast Guard, approval of funding from the Washington Legislature and from the federal government.