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Sunday, September 24, 2023
Sept. 24, 2023

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In Our View: Kotek throws curveball into Oregon bridge plan

The Columbian

On Sept. 21, 2018, the Associated Press distributed a story with this headline: “Oregon House Speaker spurs talks on Interstate Bridge.” The Oregon House speaker in question was Tina Kotek. The story reported that at a transportation forum Kotek said “she welcomes a renewed commitment from Washington legislators who appear ready to start talking about replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge connecting the two states.”

Flash forward to a couple weeks ago. Kotek, now governor of Oregon, told reporters that while she still supports replacing the aging and unsafe Interstate 5 Bridge, she doesn’t support the funding plan Oregon lawmakers are considering to pay that state’s share of the project’s cost, namely issuing $1 billion in bonds.

“I am uncomfortable with the current conversation of a billion dollars over the next four biennia in obligation bonding,” the governor said, according to Oregon Capital Chronicle. “I think there needs to be some general obligation bonding this session to move forward on our commitment on the bridge,” she added.

Kotek wants to save her state’s bonding authority for affordable housing projects as well as housing with services for chronically homeless people with disabilities, Oregon Capital Chronicle reported.

So where does that leave Washington and the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program?

Washington’s Legislature has already committed $1 billion to the project. The Columbian’s William Seekamp has previously reported that Oregon lawmakers were weighing a bonding package comprising $300 million bonded against general funds and $700 million bonded against highway user tax revenue from the Oregon Department of Transportation.

In addition, Oregon legislators want the bridge replacement project’s cost capped at $6.3 billion. The current estimate from project administrators is $6 billion, with a range of between $5 billion and $7.5 billion.

And now Kotek is balking at bonding for most of her state’s obligation. Instead, Oregon Capital Chronicle reported, “Kotek said she’d urge lawmakers to take money from existing funds for the bridge, saying the state shouldn’t tie up most of its bonding capacity on the bridge.”

But just where will Oregon legislators find the money? In our eyes one possibility is the so-called kicker tax. According to an Associated Press story from Feb. 22, “The state of Oregon is now expected to send nearly $4 billion back to taxpayers next year, as forecast revenues continue to soar past economists’ initial expectations.”

While that seems an easy fix to us, we acknowledge the kicker tax’s popularity with Oregonians, thus making it politically risky for lawmakers to dip into it.

Of course, that will be Oregon’s decision. The issue is Kotek has complicated the Oregon Legislature’s work in securing its share of the funding for the I-5 Bridge replacement project. Commitments must be made and a timeline adhered to if this essential program is to secure the federal money it needs to finally become reality.

When she was running for Oregon’s governor, Kotek told OPB in an email, “We need a safe bridge that will serve future generations, provide transportation choices like high-capacity transit, and be a better solution to helping solve our climate crisis.”

The bridge project is working to achieve those goals. But it will require the state of Oregon to put its money where its mouth is and ensure it finds a way to fund its share for a new I-5 Bridge. Its leaders must remember their word is their bond.