SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The vigorous debate among southwest Washington lawmakers over the proposed Columbia River bridge-replacement project crossed the river Wednesday to an Oregon House committee that debated a plan to build the bridge without Washington’s money.
With the original two-state plan stalled indefinitely in their state, three Washington Democrats urged Oregon lawmakers to support the Oregon-only plan.
“I recognize that there may well be a fair amount of anger that Washington state did not step up to meet our funding responsibility as you did here in Oregon, and for that I’m truly mortified,” said Washington Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver. “Certainly, know I’m angry as well.”
Lawmakers in Salem approved a two-state funding plan last year only to watch it wither in Olympia, where the Republicans who control the Senate vigorously oppose plans to use the new bridge to extend Portland’s light rail system into Vancouver, Wash.
“We are not supportive of an Oregon go-it-alone plan and think that the best things happen when we work in partnership to get them done,” Washington Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, told Oregon lawmakers by phone.
Proponents are seeking state approval for the light-rail and Interstate 5 bridge that they say would reduce congestion and improve freight movement through the Northwest. They say the two existing lift bridges, one for traffic in each direction, cause congestion daily and are likely to fail in a major earthquake.
“Sixty-thousand people, mostly in my community, cross that bridge and contribute to the Oregon economy every single day. They pay Oregon income taxes,” Washington Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, told the committee by phone. “I would hope that their lives and their jobs would be a consideration as well.”
The $2.8 billion project would get about a third of its money from the federal government, with much of the rest funded by debt repaid through toll revenue. Oregon would contribute $450 million for freeway improvements south of the river. Original plans called for Washington to contribute $450 million for freeway improvements north of the Columbia, but those plans would be scrapped.
Critics say the Oregon-only plan puts too much risk on Oregon taxpayers, who would be solely responsible for shouldering the burden if construction costs spike or tolling revenue falls short of expectations and can’t cover the debt payments.
Some critics also oppose plans to use the new bridge to extend Portland’s light-rail system into Vancouver, Wash., or worry that adding tolls to the I-5 bridge will divert congestion to the free I-205 bridge several miles east.
“I just find it very ironic or interesting that you’re here testifying to get us to do something that I believe the state of Washington failed to do and should do,” Oregon Rep. Kevin Cameron, R-Salem, told the Washington legislators. “So I hope you take that message back.”
Oregon’s $450 million contribution would come from bond sales to be repaid from the State Highway Fund. Proponents have said they plan to eventually approve a dedicated funding source for that debt, such as a gas tax hike or surcharge on vehicle registrations.
Even if the plan survives in the House, however, it faces a tougher test in the Senate, where President Peter Courtney says it shouldn’t go forward without the backing of Washington’s Legislature.
Oregon’s legislation would require only an intergovernmental agreement with Washington, which could be signed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration without legislative approval. Oregon would need Washington’s help to buy land in that state using eminent domain and to sanction Washington drivers who refuse to pay tolls. About two-thirds of the bridge’s users are expected to live outside Oregon, mainly commuters from Washington.
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