It’s the Darndest Thing – ‘Deadline’ Comes and Goes, and Columbia River Crossing is Still Alive

It’s Now or Never, Governor Said Last Session – Critics Say Pressure Tactic was a Sham

By Erik Smith
Washington State Wire

An early artist's conception for the new bridge illustrates the salient features: Low clearance, no drawbridge, and a flat design that works for light rail but makes limited accommodation for river traffic.

An early artist’s conception for the new bridge illustrates the most controversial features: Low clearance, no drawbridge, and a flat design that works for light rail but makes limited accommodation for river traffic.

OLYMPIA, Oct. 2.—Last legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee told lawmakers it was now or never on the Columbia River Crossing, but today the argument looks like it was a political sales pitch. The supposed deadline – the end of the federal fiscal year – came and went Monday at midnight, and Washington legislators never did pony up the money that would have launched the project.

But guess what? The uber-controversial I-5 bridge project is as alive as it ever was, and it’s still in line for more than $1 billion in federal funding next summer. There never was a deadline. And state officials continue to work furiously on a plan that would allow Oregon to take the lead, without Washington lifting a finger. Might be good news for those want the aging Interstate Bridge at Vancouver to come down. For lawmakers who thought the project’s demise was one of the best things that happened last session, it just goes to show the whole thing was hooey.

“I have said all along I thought that was a false deadline,” says state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, one of the biggest critics of the bridge project. “It was the timeshare sales pitch – do it now or lose out forever. And clearly time has proven me correct.”

Truth and falsehood are rather murky things in politics. Things change. Old facts become no-longer-operative. But you can say it demonstrates that anytime anyone in the political trade tries to force a decision by saying there are no other choices, you better take it with a big grain of salt.

A Pressure Tactic

Gov. Jay Inslee calls on lawmakers to pass a transportation-tax increase during a rally Monday morning. A few hours later he raised the ante when he vetoed a section of the transportation budget that would have kept the Columbia River Crossing on life support and deferred the battle to a later time.

It’s now or never on the bridge, Gov. Jay Inslee said last session as he touted the Columbia River Crossing and a gas-tax increase that would have helped pay for it. Here he addresses a transportation rally on the Capitol steps last May.

Whatever the explanation for the resurrection, it is a little disconcerting to consider the statements from Inslee’s office last spring. Last April, Inslee declared at a news conference, “It is now or never for building a bridge across the Columbia River. We either take action this year or there will not be action for more than a decade across the Columbia River.”

It was one of the key arguments as Inslee touted a gas-tax bill that would have raised taxes 10.5 cents a gallon over time for road projects across the state. The measure would have provided $450 million to launch the Columbia River Crossing, the state’s share of the $3.4 billion project. Oregon was to put up an equal amount, the feds were supposed to kick in $1.25 billion, and tolls on the new bridge were supposed to pay the rest.

The hitch is the bridge is hugely controversial in Clark County. It would provide entry into Washington for the Portland-area light-rail system, obligating Vancouver-area residents to pick up operating costs for a rail system many are not convinced they need. The low-deck bridge design necessary for rail – without a drawbridge – would have blocked tall river shipments from upstream manufacturers for all time. The tolls – perhaps $8 a round trip, maybe even higher, would have been a big hit on the 65,000 Washington residents who work in the Portland area every day. And because there were no plans to widen the highway on either side, it wouldn’t have done much to relieve traffic congestion.

As part of last session's lobbying effort, Inslee brought Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood to the statehouse for a closed-door meeting with the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.

As part of last session’s lobbying effort, Inslee brought Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood to the statehouse for a closed-door meeting with the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.

Critics want a redesign. The Inslee Administration said no. It pulled out the stops. Inslee vetoed an $81 million appropriation that might have kept the project alive and sent it back to the drawing board — he declared it was a false choice. Inslee even arranged a closed-door meeting between federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and members of the largely Republican Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. A tape of that meeting surfaced briefly on YouTube, a breach of the usual secrecy attendant on caucus meetings. It shows LaHood turned up the pressure. “Sometimes you’ve got to fish or cut bait,” LaHood told the assembled senators. “Hey, that’s what you get elected to do. You are elected to make decisions. …Lookit, now is the hour, this is it, we’ve done everything we can possibly can.”

The tactic went over with a thud. The governor’s office was treating the Senate like children, complains state Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch. “It was my way or the highway,” he says. After 23 years in the Legislature, Sheldon says he knew better than that, and so did everyone else in the room.

Because the Inslee Administration insisted the bridge be included in the transportation package, the CRC was one of the big reasons the tax plan went down. And when it was all over, Inslee declared the bridge project dead and blamed its collapse on “right-wing ideology” in the Senate.

Never Was a Deadline

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., congresswoman from the 3rd Congressional District.

U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., congresswoman from the 3rd Congressional District.

Now here’s the funny part. There never was a deadline. Most talk of a deadline last spring centered on the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30, though that was never the real decision point. Distributions of federal funds are made in July. And since Washington wasn’t ready to go at that point, the bridge project is in line for federal funding next July, provided something can be put together.

Of course there wasn’t a deadline, says Casey Bowman, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler, who represents the Vancouver area. The congresswoman ought to know, because she sits on the subcommittee that oversees transportation appropriations. “It didn’t correspond with anything we knew, and sure enough, we looked into it, and the facts were different.”

In a letter last week to C-Tran, the Vancouver-area transit agency, Herrera says the deadline talk aimed to rush lawmakers into making a decision on a flawed bridge proposal. “Throughout the CRC planning process, project leaders and media reports have repeated claims that various actions must be carried out with a delay, or else federal funding would be lost,” she says. “I have repeatedly investigated this claim at the federal level, and can assure you that no such deadline exists.”

The Congressional Research Service confirms that the New Starts Program, from which $850 million would have come, does not impose timelines or deadlines for applications, Herrera-Beutler says. The Federal Transit Administration, which administers the grant, has confirmed that the CRC “is in no danger of being disqualified from consideration.” Meaning there’s plenty of time to redesign the project and develop a more attractive financing plan – if that’s what people in this Washington choose to do.

Bridge Plan Lives On

New span would replace the Interstate Bridge at Vancouver, portions of which were built in 1917 but substantially reconstructed in 1958.

New span would replace the Interstate Bridge at Vancouver, portions of which were built in 1917 but substantially reconstructed in 1958.

Not that anyone here seems to be talking about a redesign. Washington officials are plugging away in support of a plan from Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber that would build the bridge as originally designed with Beaver State funds. Missing money would be made up with tolls. The main difference is that freeway connections on this side of the river would not be built, allowing it to be scaled back to $2.7 billion. Last week state Attorney General Bob Ferguson released a letter to Gov. Inslee saying he sees no legal impediments. “We see no fatal flaws that would preclude Oregon’s lead on the project,” he writes.

Right now the Oregon Legislature is meeting in special session, and it appears the bridge won’t make it to the agenda. But no matter. Since there never was a deadline, Oregon lawmakers can deal with the issue during their regular session next year. [UPDATE, Oct. 3: The Oregon Legislature adjourned after this story was posted, without action on the bridge.]

Clearly the efforts to promote the bridge continued even after the supposed deadline was supposed to have killed it. Washington state continued to negotiate mitigation agreements with upstream manufacturers who no longer would be able to ship tall loads on the river. And even though the project planning office was closed last summer, the states of Washington and Oregon did not withdraw their permit application from the Coast Guard, which has yea-or-nay power over projects affecting river navigation. Last week the agency approved the low-hanging bridge design, though only after the decision was kicked from the regional office to Washington, D.C.

Things Changed

So how does one reconcile the ominous talk of a deadline last session with actual reality?

Inslee spokesman David Postman says the old project and the new one are two different things. “What we said was that if the Legislature doesn’t act, what is before you is dead, and that is the case,” he says. After transportation officials started shutting off the lights at the CRC planning office, he says the two governors got together and came up with the new plan. “I think it would be a mistake for anybody to stop thinking creatively when we are faced with a dead-end like we were.”

A few senators aside, the community wants the bridge, he says, and the governor’s office was eager to help. “We don’t live in a static world and it would not behoove any of us on either side of the river to just sit and say, oh, that is dead,” he says.

Yet it does seem to show that there never was a “now or never” choice.

But Inslee Promised

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center.

For bridge opponents, the continued effort to promote the CRC provokes fury. They would have preferred to take Inslee at his word. They didn’t see the death of the project as a threat — they saw it as a promise. Rivers says the go-it-alone Oregon plan is even worse than the original proposal, because Washington would have no decision-making authority over tolls. “We are going to be asking people to make a choice between food for their kids and paying to get to work every day,” she says.

State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, who rallied opposition to the bridge in the Senate last session, issued a press release last week: “How many times have the CRC backers pointed to the end of September as part of their push for getting legislative buyoff? Remember how all that additional federal money is going to be lost unless the CRC gets final approval and has its application in by Sept. 30? …We’ll soon know whether the supporters were being honest.”

The Senate Majority Coalition Caucus delivered a letter to the governor’s office last week that contends the attorney general’s legal arguments are filled with holes – the biggest being the point that the state Department of Transportation cannot enter into deals with Oregon unless the Legislature grants specific legal authority. “It is particularly disturbing that this could happen with a multi-billion-dollar mega-project that Washington citizens will be paying for via tolls for the next 30 to 40 years,” it says.

The effort shows a lack of respect for the Legislature, and could “poison” efforts to develop a transportation package next session, it says. And it hints that the caucus might go to court to block the Inslee Administration. “At its core the letter [from the attorney general’s office] implies that the Legislature is a problem which a state agency can contract around.”

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  • lewwaters

    It should be known too that 5 members of the C-Tran Board of Directors voted to approve a hastily prepared resolution Sep 26, 2013 to approve signing a contract with Portland’s Metro that not only grants Oregon sole stewardship over setting tolls and fees for the financially troubled light rail extension, but grants TriMet eminent domain rights through C-Tran where if Trimet states they want property in Washington, C-Tran MUST take it under eminent domain for TriMet.

    the resolution appeared minutes before the vote and the actual 40 page contract was signed the next day, with not one C-Tran Board Director actually seeing or reading it, unless some did in a smoky back room prior to the vote.

    There is a vote scheduled to gauge citizen support in November, but expecting slim support, proponents pushed this through before such a vote could be held, selling out Clark County to Oregon.

    The sell-outs consist of Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, city council members Larry Smith and Bart Hansen, Ridgefield Mator Ron Onslow and Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart who has repeatedly campaigned on voters having a vote before any decision was made.

  • normally_sane

    The dead line is a sales tactic. These used car salesmen are promoting old technology that can barely run up hill, for the price of newer more sensible approach. The salesmen consist of Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, city council members Larry Smith and Bart Hansen, Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow and Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart who last week reportedly Leavitated his campaign promise to ensure voters having a vote before any decision is made.

  • ChronicKindness

    Over and Over again this zombie-CRC comes back to eat more money.

    The most sensible approach is to UPGRADE the existing bridge and plane a new, third bridge west of Portland/Vancouver.

    No light rail. Vancouver does not want the Portland riff raff.

  • Clark County rejected literail

    The CTRAN board and RegionalTransportationCouncil both adopted a policy in 2008 that required a vote on high capacity transit, (light rail ) on the CRC bridge. In Nov. 2012, the vote on light rail on the proposed CRC double decker bridge with light rail dangling down in the way of river traffic was held, and every city in the county REJECTED light rail as well as some county area, 56.51% Rejected. This action by the CTRAN board to fund light against the vote of the people is a violation of policy, and of trust. Tolls are estimated at around $8 One Way, going up over time. OR is also keen on tolling I-205, especially if they get to keep all the toll money. http://www.wweek.com/portland/blog-30724-tolls_on_the_columbia_river_crossing_will_max_out_interstate_205.html

    • ChronicKindness

      Only because people move to Vancouver to avoid the State and County and City income taxes on top of the ultra high property taxes. Portlandia wants to charge you to travel through their liberal la la land.

    • Robert Dean

      Yes, and C-tran and RTC put the vote requirements in their resolutions approving the proposed CRC because it’s the law: Rcw 81.104 and RCW 81.112.030.

  • Hart Noecker

    “The hitch is the bridge is hugely controversial in Clark County”

    The hitch is the 12 freeway expansion is hugely controversial in Multnomah County.

    • normally_sane

      The hitch is you don’t have anything harness to! And Clark County refuses to be a plow horse for MAX, Get your own damn’d mule.

      • Hart Noecker

        Sure thing. Just understand that this giant waste of money is just as unpopular among voters in Oregon.

  • econoline

    I am no fan of this freeway expansion project, but saying, “we are going to be asking people to make a choice between food for their kids and paying to get to work every day” is as ridiculous a statement as anything the pro CRC folks have been saying. The tolls as proposed are too low, and represent a tiny fraction of the total cost of driving to and from a job.

    • normally_sane

      Will you pay mine? Will you help me pay my kids college loans too? OH and my once middle class 40 hour work week just got cut back to less than full time, will you make up the difference in my family’s budget? I am looking for a third and need fourth stream of income, to make up the difference between the benefits I was offered do to the fact that the skills and labor I offered to my employer can no longer be justified due to the real costs of regulation, taxation and now you want to set a toll for me to go to a job that isn’t really worth the effort?
      And you think it is a ridiculous statement to say that families will be choosing between food and getting to work? What fantasy world do you live in? Eight dollar tolls are too low? What are you smoking?

    • Anti CRC Scammer

      So, $2000 plus a year in ever-increasing tolls is “just a tiny fraction?”

      Clearly, someone is playing with a computer and their Mommy doesn’t know.

      Sen. Rivers, who has been dealing with this issue in some form or another for years actually DOES know what she’s talking about, unlike the CRC Scammers who will say or do anything to get this steaming pile built, whether we need it or not… and whether we want it or not.

      Lower income commuters are going to have to make some very harsh choices… small business in Clark County who depend on the $100,000,000 plus in disposable income that will vaporize in tolls will sustain horrific damage. Food choices, restaurants, movies, pizza.places… all of the things this money is going to now and many more will suffer.

      And, of course, this: if YOU are a part of that bogus “very tiny fraction,” then it is a HUGE deal…. for you.

      I applaud Rivers for putting a face on the CRC Scam’s idiocy.

      Well done.

    • Robert Dean

      Econoline, every dollar that goes to Salem is a dollar that didn’t go to Olympia to help pay for schools in Washington.

    • Robert Dean

      Yes, econoline, your points are all valid and ignored by the CRC studies. Actually, it is not over the top to suggest that tolls will cut deeply into family budgets in Clark County for the very reasons you mention. An $8 toll is necessary to pay back the bonds (given the inflated traffic projections they are using). An $8 toll is the optimum (critical mass) toll before people don’t pay it at all. Light rail can only relieve 2-3% of daily traffic loads because there will not be enough parking stalls in the 3 Downtown Portland office tower employee parking garages they plan to build on the cheap Vancouver real estate. They will have to raise the toll or toll I-205 to make it work financially. Nobody reading a Craiglist add in Portland, for say a rental in Vancouver, will even consider paying a toll to go check it out. Real estate prices in Clark County will plummet, again. Let alone the bankruptcies that will occur during 7 plus years of staged construction with surface streets and I-5 all torn up. The CRC has not studied this effect to date (it’s called indirect costs and they were not studied in the DEIS or the FEIS).

  • Evergreen Libertarian

    Last time looked light rail was about four times as expensive to operate at a bus. Unfortunately those in charge don’t care what happens to working families in Clark Co.

  • Tard

    When I moved to WWA from AZ in 1982, the papers were screaming that unless taxes are raised NOW, your children will all die!
    Then I read the same thing every year… And now I no longer listen.