Monday, January 27, 2020
Jan. 27, 2020

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Oregon action on CRC unlikely this year

Legislative committee has yet to schedule any meetings

By , Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter

It’s been almost a month since Oregon leaders formed a special legislative committee on the Columbia River Crossing, at which time a top state official declared immediate action was necessary to keep the project on track.

Yet here’s how state Sen. Chuck Thomsen, a member of that committee, responds when asked about the latest on the CRC.

“I haven’t heard a word,” said Thomsen, a Republican from Hood River. “I have people ask me this all the time.”

The committee hasn’t scheduled a single hearing. As lawmakers return to Salem for informal meetings today, legislative action on the revised Interstate 5 Bridge replacement appears increasingly unlikely this year. If it happens at all, many believe it will wait until the next regular legislative session in February.

The delay means the CRC’s schedule may be out the window, again. An Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman acknowledged Tuesday that planners are now looking at a 2015 construction date, pushed back from 2014.

Oregon began considering a scaled-back, $2.7 billion version of the project after Washington largely pulled out of the project in July. Such a plan would still replace the I-5 Bridge and send light rail into Vancouver while relying heavily on tolls.

The project is facing even more uncertainties as leaders scramble to salvage the beleaguered megaproject. Among the biggest: Revelations that Oregon doesn’t have full authority to enforce tolls on Washington drivers, who make up the majority of existing traffic on the bridge. ODOT Director Matthew Garrett wrote in a letter to state Treasurer Ted Wheeler this month that some kind of arrangement between the two states is needed for the plan to work — echoing a stance made clear by Wheeler two months earlier.

The revised CRC would shift the debt burden to Oregon if the project materializes. Revenue from tolls would finance much of that debt.

“If you’re going to sell bonds, you have to be confident that the tolls are going to be coming in to repay them,” said James Sinks, a spokesman for Wheeler.

Garrett indicated in the letter that discussions between the two states on the subject of tolling are ongoing. But Lars Erickson, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said there hasn’t yet been any direct engagement between the two transportation departments on tolling.

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When Washington walked away from the project in July, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber said at the time that “neither state can incur the costs of delay” in announcing that the project would shut down. Almost five months later, Kitzhaber publicly supports spending additional time and resources in pursuing a revived effort without clear legislative support.

It’s not the first time CRC supporters have changed their tune. Past deadlines on the project have proven to be overstated. But there are financial implications if the CRC remains in limbo, said ODOT spokesman Patrick Cooney. The project has spent more than $170 million to date.

“There’s a cost to delay,” Cooney said. “There’s a cost to missing the construction season in 2014, and there’s less certainty about the availability of federal funds the longer we wait.”

Oregon lawmakers did authorize $450 million for the CRC earlier this year, but that money expired in September after the Washington Legislature adjourned without doing the same. Oregon would have to approve the CRC again for the project to get off the ground.

Thomsen, the state senator, voted against the CRC the first time around. His position on the issue hasn’t changed since then, he said, citing opposition to light rail in Vancouver, among other reasons. Thomsen believes a second vote would be a much tougher sell in Salem.

“I don’t see how it’s going to happen,” Thomsen said.

It’s unclear how long Kitzhaber is willing to chase a win for the CRC without action this year. The governor’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But as long as Kitzhaber is on board, the CRC may still have a pulse, Thomsen said.

“I’ll never say ‘never’ with him,” Thomsen said. “I haven’t seen him lose very often.”

Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter