Oregon state lawmakers returned to Salem on Tuesday and worked at frenzied speed to make their way through a pile of policy and budget bills that had piled up during the six-week legislative walkout.
One of the big-ticket items on the list: A $1 billion commitment to fund Oregon’s share of the mega-project to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River connecting Portland and Vancouver.
The Joint Committee on Ways and Means approved funding for the project, which comes at a critical juncture for the future of the aging bridge, a key cog along the interstate and the only lift span on the freeway between Canada and Mexico. Oregon and Washington have the chance to leverage state funding to qualify for up to $2.5 billion in federal funding through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Washington state lawmakers recently approved a $1 billion commitment to the project. Oregon’s commitment would now match that, by carving out $252 million in general obligation bonds and an additional $750 million in debt over the next three biennia, totaling $1 billion. The project is estimated to cost about $6.3 billion intotal. Both states will now apply for federal funding.
The funding bill approved by lawmakers also included funds for a wide range of other projects, including $322 million in bonding to finance public university projects, $75 million for community college projects, $100 million for school districts to make capital improvements and $62.8 million of bonding for courthouse replacement projects in Benton, Clackamas, Morrow and Curry County courthouses.
Rep. Susan McLain, who was part of a bi-state work group for the past four years with Washington lawmakers, said the commitment by Oregon lawmakers was crucial.
“We have an opportunity to do what our ancestors did and create a bridge that is safe and has a long life span,” McLain said. “It’s pretty exciting, but we’re not done. It’s one step.”
Once the funding receives final approval, McLain said, it would still be a five- to eight-year construction project with the goal of starting construction in 2025.
If history is any guide — look no further than the long, drawn-out saga of the Columbia River Crossing project — the project still has to overcome many hurdles. Some state lawmakers have also expressed concern about how Oregon plans to pay for its share of the project.
Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, said she’s concerned the state has tapped general fund bonds to pay for the infrastructure project.
“These are the bonds we use for affordable housing and we’re in an affordable housing crisis and we need to prioritize funding,” she said.
Rep. Pham said she’s also worried there aren’t any assurances the project’s cost won’t balloon.
“We’re asking students to have crowded classrooms and go without music and we’re not asking transportation systems to make similar cuts and right-size their budget and make our transportation system live within our means,” she said.
Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek previously raised similar concerns as Pham’s but said on Tuesday she was glad lawmakers got the funding “across the finish line in time for critical federal grant opportunities” and said she looked forward to discussing the best funding sources for the project in the future.
The legislature is scheduled to adjourn by June 25th.