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State needs a bridge partner

The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Jan. 31:

Gov. John Kitzhaber made a last-ditch appeal to Oregon legislative leaders this week, urging them to renew state funding that would allow construction of a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River to begin. The governor is right about the need for a safer bridge capable of withstanding earthquakes, and he’s right about the existing bridge couplet becoming a pinch point for $40 billion in West Coast commerce. But he’s making his pitch to the wrong audience: Lawmakers in Olympia, not Salem, are the ones whose support is needed.

Oregon legislators approved $450 million in state bonds for the Columbia bridge last year. Washington legislators then rejected a transportation bill that included an equal amount for the project. The bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., ought to be — needs to be — a two-state partnership.

Ever since Washington balked, bridge advocates on the Oregon side have promoted the option of going it alone. Each states’ share of the $2.8 billion project, they say, is for new interchanges and other improvements at its respective end of the bridge. Oregon could make the improvements on its side, and leave Washington’s upgrades to be completed at a later date. Meanwhile, Oregon could take the lead on construction of the bridge itself, financing the work with revenue from tolls and $850 million in federal funds.

In his letter to Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, Kitzhaber noted that an investment-grade analysis had concluded that tolling revenue would cover costs, and that Treasurer Ted Wheeler had accepted the analysis. Reviews by both states’ transportation departments and attorneys general, the governor said, have found that “an Oregon-led project is technically, administratively, operationally, financially and legally feasible.”

But opposition to the bridge, and particularly the light-rail component that would be financed with federal money, remains strong in Vancouver. Washington state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, has introduced a bill that would prohibit public agencies from transferring property to the Portland area’s transit agency for light rail. Other legislative or legal impediments could arise, and Courtney and others in Salem are concerned that the challenges might prevail.

At a minimum, lawsuits would result in delays. An extended timeline, along with the overruns that tend to accompany big transportation projects, would push the cost of the bridge higher. The obligation to pay these costs would be Oregon’s, and Oregon’s alone.

Yet Kitzhaber wants the Legislature to reauthorize the $450 million in bonds in the session that convenes next week. The reauthorization would be contingent upon Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s acceptance of an intergovernmental agreement pledging cooperation between the two states’ transportation departments. Kitzhaber’s letter says Inslee is prepared to sign such an agreement, but in doing so he could expect to be accused of overriding legislative intent. It would be reassuring if Washington’s leaders would take at least part of the initiative, and accept the agreement in advance of further action by Oregon lawmakers. But Washington’s enthusiasm for the bridge project continues to appear lukewarm at best.

Kitzhaber and other supporters of the bridge warn that the project will be shelved for years, even decades, if Oregon does not move ahead. But the bridge isn’t likely to be built at all until it becomes a high priority on both sides of the Columbia. Washington lawmakers need to understand that they can’t expect Oregon to bear all of the costs and risks. A two-state transportation problem demands a two-state solution.

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