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June 21, 2021

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Economist doubts east county bridge is viable

Madore had requested opinion from ally against CRC, hoping for support

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Clark County Commissioner David Madore is championing a plan to build a bridge from Southeast 192nd Avenue in Vancouver to Northeast Airport Way in Portland.
Clark County Commissioner David Madore is championing a plan to build a bridge from Southeast 192nd Avenue in Vancouver to Northeast Airport Way in Portland. Photo Gallery

Bridge on the ballot

County voters will weigh in on an east county bridge on the Nov. 4 ballot for the second year in a row.

This year’s advisory vote asks for voters to endorse a proposal by Republican County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke to pursue construction of a bridge between Highway 14 near Southeast 192nd Avenue and Airport Way in Northeast Portland.

A voters pamphlet statement written by Madore, Port of Vancouver Commissioner Jerry Oliver, and former GOP legislative candidate John Ley reiterates that a bridge can be funded, permitted, built and opened in five years with no tolls to the public.

Opponents doubt any of that can happen, and say that even if it did, it would do very little to relieve chronic congestion on Interstate 5. Their statement was written by Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman, former Camas Mayor and economic development official Paul Dennis, and former Washougal Councilor Molly Coston.

Last November, an east county bridge advisory was one of six advisory votes county commissioners placed on the ballot. It received 57.73 percent approval.

Bridge on the ballot

County voters will weigh in on an east county bridge on the Nov. 4 ballot for the second year in a row.

This year's advisory vote asks for voters to endorse a proposal by Republican County Commissioners David Madore and Tom Mielke to pursue construction of a bridge between Highway 14 near Southeast 192nd Avenue and Airport Way in Northeast Portland.

A voters pamphlet statement written by Madore, Port of Vancouver Commissioner Jerry Oliver, and former GOP legislative candidate John Ley reiterates that a bridge can be funded, permitted, built and opened in five years with no tolls to the public.

Opponents doubt any of that can happen, and say that even if it did, it would do very little to relieve chronic congestion on Interstate 5. Their statement was written by Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman, former Camas Mayor and economic development official Paul Dennis, and former Washougal Councilor Molly Coston.

Last November, an east county bridge advisory was one of six advisory votes county commissioners placed on the ballot. It received 57.73 percent approval.

-- Tyler Graf

— Tyler Graf

Republican Clark County Commissioner David Madore has called his proposal for an east county bridge across the Columbia River an ideal fit for the community, a viable and cost-effective way of relieving cross-state congestion.

But others, including an ally in Madore’s fight against the Columbia River Crossing, question whether it’s financially viable.

In August, Madore approached Portland-based economist Joe Cortright, a critic of the Columbia River Crossing, about lending support to the east county bridge. Cortright said he declined to do an economic analysis. He called the financial details for the project too vague.

“Even if the departments of transportation signed off on this, they don’t have the capacity to pay for it,” Cortright said.

Madore has repeatedly said that if county voters lend their support to an east county bridge in the advisory vote on the general election ballot, then figuring out how to pay for the $800 million project could be left up to Oregon and Washington lawmakers.

That would be a tough sell, Cortright said.

“Who would sign the contract? And where they would they get the money to pay for it?” he said. “It’s only financially viable and sound if you have someone on the hook for it.”

Madore’s idea calls for extending a third bridge from Southeast 192nd Avenue across the Columbia River and having it connect to Airport Way in Oregon.

Cortright said he found it surprising that Madore would propose a project without a funding scheme in place. The two had previously been united in their opposition to the Columbia River Crossing. During Madore’s 2012 campaign for county commissioner, he leaned on Cortright’s economic modeling to paint the CRC as a financially disastrous idea and a potential drain on local jobs.

Most state transportation projects are paid for using the state gas tax, a flat fee collected on every gallon purchased. The problem, Cortright said, is that while Washington’s tax is among the highest in the nation, its purchasing power is declining.

According to a 2013 debt affordability study conducted by the state’s treasurer’s office, 70 percent of gas tax revenue will be spent on indebtedness during the next biennium.

Much of the money is being spent on projects that have already been bonded, including the Highway 520 floating bridge across Lake Washington and the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel in downtown Seattle. There isn’t enough money for another massive transportation project, Cortright said.

Washington isn’t alone in experiencing diminishing returns on its gas tax.

Nationally, the number of vehicle miles travelled has been on the decline for nine consecutive years following decades of steady growth, resulting in a drop in revenue. The per-mile cost to operate a vehicle was also down in 2013, hovering around half of what it was in 1993, according to AAA.

Officials point to the prevalence of more fuel-efficient cars as one reason for the drop. That’s coupled with people’s driving less, particularly during times when fuel prices spike.

Lawmakers say nothing will change when it comes to paying for transportation projects until an alternative mechanism is put in place.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, sits on the state’s Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for developing capital budgets. She’s expressed skepticism about the feasibility of the state’s developing a funding package for the east county bridge.

“The days of bonding these projects are gone,” she said.

FIGG Engineering Group, a Florida firm, is behind the latest bridge designs. Madore has characterized their involvement as “pro bono,” saying they’re interested in receiving the contract.

Prior to the meeting, Rivers said she gave FIGG Engineering a “reality check” about the viability of such a massive undertaking. In what Rivers characterized as a candid conversation, she told the team that the project likely wouldn’t be possible without an alternative funding mechanism, likely tolling.

“This project will not be paid for without tolls,” Rivers said.

Oregon state representatives have been reluctant to talk about the project, saying there’s been no outreach from Clark County or Washington officials about what sorts of partnerships would be necessary to build the bridge. The office of Democratic Rep. Tina Kotek, Oregon’s House speaker, has declined to comment on the bridge, referring questions to the Oregon Department of Transportation.

At the Washington State Department of Transportation, questions were referred to state legislators.

Listening to Madore talk about the bridge idea, Cortright said he was reminded of the Columbia River Crossing.

“He’s copying their tactics directly,” Cortright said. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

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