Two Southwest Washington senators plan to champion the idea of designating the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project as a statewide priority.
“We want to send a message to Oregon, we’re ready to work together and find a path forward,” said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who plans to partner with Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, on the legislation.
Persuading the entire county delegation to agree on legislation related to the bridge would demonstrate progress on the divisive issue. But it’s not the only plan being discussed. Rivers said she’s also been talking to someone on U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team about securing funding for the bridge.
Southwest Washington legislators touched on a wide range of topics at the 2017 legislative outlook breakfast Friday morning, an event hosted by the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Identity Clark County and the Columbia River Economic Development Council.
The legislators on the panel were Rivers and Cleveland; Sen.-elect Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver; Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas; Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver; Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida; and Rep.-elect Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver. Democratic Reps. Sharon Wylie and Monica Stonier, both of Vancouver, did not attend.
The first question asked by moderator John McDonagh, president of the chamber of commerce, was whether legislators felt the need to replace the bridge.
On the surface, they seemed to agree: Yes, something needs to be done.
Legislators didn’t delve into the issue of designating the bridge as a statewide priority project or Trump’s plans during the breakfast. The Columbian spoke to lawmakers before and after the event.
But Cleveland did tell the audience: “We all share a common goal, that being, we make the Interstate 5 Bridge our top priority.”
For the past year, a handful of lawmakers have been meeting behind closed doors to discuss easing congestion on the Interstate 5 corridor.
Cleveland and Rivers both appear to back the idea of designating the project as one of statewide priority.
“Simply put, I consider this a vote of confidence,” Rivers told The Columbian. “We need to be moving forward on a project and, as yet, we don’t have a design. It’s just getting the process going.”
Rivers was an outspoken critic of the ill-fated Columbia River Crossing project.
The approximately $3 billion CRC would have replaced the I-5 Bridge, extended light rail into Vancouver and rebuilt freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River. Washington walked away from the project in 2013, and an Oregon-led version of the CRC fizzled in 2014. About $200 million was spent in a planning process that stretched back to 2001.
The state’s Department of Commerce would approve the actual designation, which could expedite the permitting process and construction. But even if the legislation proves largely symbolic in nature, getting the entire Southwest Washington delegation to back it could prove influential.
At the breakfast, the issue was raised that language in the current transportation package makes it impossible for Washington State Department of Transportation to work on any Interstate 5 bridge project.
The package says the state can’t use any additional federal transportation funds for the Columbia River Crossing project until July. Some believe that language also precludes WSDOT from working with its counterpart across the river. Since the state’s department of transportation works only on projects that have been funded, that makes sense.
But, as WSDOT spokesman Bart Treece noted, the agency “takes direction from the Legislature.”
And although Cleveland appeared determined to identify an Interstate 5 Bridge project as a priority, other legislators didn’t rule out other options.
Rivers said before the meeting that she’s been chatting with someone on Trump’s transition team about including funding to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, the Hood River bridge and the Bridge of the Gods in his first 100-day plan. Rivers declined to say whom she was speaking with.
“We want it included in the 100-day package,” Rivers said. “It’s aggressive and it’s hopeful, but why don’t we start there? Because all three projects are meritorious.”
At the breakfast, Pike, Kraft and Wilson expressed interest in considering a third bridge option.
“If we had it my way, we would have three new bridges between Oregon and Washington, but I’ll settle for one in the 2017 session,” Pike said.
Harris said he hopes the two states can start a dialogue early in the session.
“I don’t want to wait for the end of July,” he said.
Other big-ticket items
The biggest issue facing the state this legislative session is the school funding crisis.
The Legislature will once again begin the session under a contempt of court ruling for not complying with the McCleary decision, which ordered the Legislature to fully fund K-12 education. The state’s top court has also slapped lawmakers with a $100,000-a-day fine for not complying. Both Rivers and Harris are involved with ongoing negotiations on how to resolve the inequity among school districts. Rivers suggested there will be a flurry of bills introduced this session.
Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, made headlines this week when he introduced a bill to amend the constitution striking the section requiring the state to amply fund public education. Another Republican legislator pre-filed a bill to fund education first.
On other issues, legislators appeared to divide along party lines. Cleveland said fighting climate change should be a priority, while several of the Republican panelists talked of cutting regulations and ensuring state climate policies don’t exceed federal regulations.
This legislative session, lawmakers will approve operating, transportation and capital budgets.
Lawmakers said they would also support some of the priorities advocated for by the event’s hosts, such as money carved out for Washington State University. The university is requesting $600,000 for the WSU Vancouver Life Science Building, $5 million from the operating budget for the Center for Engineering and Science in Advanced Materials Manufacturing and $10.8 million for the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.
A place of civility
The delegation also addressed an audience question about working together as a more cohesive group. In the past, there have been well-publicized personality conflicts that have hurt the region.
Cleveland and Rivers have spearheaded an effort for the delegation to meet and work through their priorities before the session starts. The two senators will also play powerful roles on the Senate Health Care Committee, with Rivers as chair and Cleveland likely serving as ranking member.
“There is a tremendous will to get things done,” Rivers said.
Pike said the Legislature is a place of civility.
“Yes, we have vigorous debates on a wide range of issues. We may disagree. We may vote yes, we may vote no, but at the end of the day, we respect each other’s opinion,” she said.