As Oregon lawmakers mull whether to recommit to the Columbia River Crossing, several leaders from Washington kept their voices in the debate during a marathon public hearing in Oregon on Wednesday.
Oregon’s House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development heard hours of testimony as supporters and opponents made mostly familiar arguments for and against the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement. Even though Washington has largely pulled out of the controversial megaproject, comments by a handful of Southwest Washington legislators made it clear they still see a lot at stake for Clark County.
Among those testifying were state Sens. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and state Reps. Jim Moeller and Sharon Wylie, both Vancouver Democrats.
The latest hearing comes as the Oregon Legislature considers doubling down on what’s now a $2.7 billion project to replace the I-5 Bridge, extend light rail to Vancouver and rebuild freeway mostly in Oregon. The project would also replace the state Highway 14 interchange in Washington, where the new I-5 bridge would land.
Oregon committed to funding the CRC last year, only to see Washington walk away without authorizing any money for the project. The CRC
has since re-emerged as a pared-down effort with Oregon at the helm — and bearing all the financial risk.
The project would still require intergovernmental agreements between the two states — which don’t require legislative approval, supporters say — to work. One of the key authorizations Oregon still needs is a way to collect tolls from Washington residents who cross the bridge but don’t pay. Toll revenue is expected to finance most of the project’s cost, and the majority of toll-paying drivers would be Southwest Washington drivers.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Rivers said the Washington State Department of Licensing has not, and will not, enter into any toll-collection agreement with Oregon. Rivers said the Republican-dominated majority in the Washington Senate, which was instrumental in blocking CRC funding last year, stands ready to help create a project “that works for the entire region.”
As for Oregon: “On this project, I think it’s wisest to measure twice and cut once,” Rivers said during the hearing, which was broadcast online.
Cleveland, Moeller and Wylie all urged Oregon lawmakers to again do what Washington could not, and approve funding for the CRC. Moeller noted that the project still has strong federal support, a crucial bridge permit from the U.S. Coast Guard and other key pieces in place.
“All you need to do is say yes,” Moeller said. He and others touted the economic benefits of a project they said replaces an outdated liability in the existing I-5 Bridge.
Also testifying in support of the CRC were Vancouver City Councilor Larry Smith and City Manager Eric Holmes. Smith said Vancouver citizens support the project, and pointed to last fall’s city council elections as evidence. All four winning candidates, including Mayor Tim Leavitt, have been supportive of the CRC.
“I think that tells you something in itself,” Smith said. He added: “A failure to act in Olympia is not a vote against the project.”
At times, Oregon state Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, pressed Washington leaders on their role in the project and the risk to Oregon. She also appeared to be posting Twitter messages during the hearing, at one point writing, “Arrogant of the Wash. pro-#crc legs who came & said — we’re behind you. Um, did you bring your checkbook?”
Earlier in the hearing, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber testified that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has directed his state to start working on an intergovernmental agreement on the CRC. Inslee spokesman David Postman confirmed Wednesday that the governor has asked his transportation secretary to discuss potential language with Oregon.
“But there is no commitment to sign such an agreement,” Postman said in an email.
Whether the CRC has enough steam to get through the Oregon Legislature again this year is unclear. In 2013, the project sailed through the House on a 45-11 vote. That means Democratic Speaker Tina Kotek, one of its strongest backers, can lose some votes this time around and still have enough to pass.
Last year’s Senate tally was 18-11, suggesting a much smaller cushion for CRC supporters there. Senate President Peter Courtney has already said he opposes the project unless Washington is also on board.