OLYMPIA, May 21.—Gov. Jay Inslee executed a breathtaking all-or-nothing gamble Monday on a highly controversial bridge project at Vancouver, vetoing a transportation-budget appropriation that would have kept the project alive if the Coast Guard rejects a proposed design later this year. Instead, he said the state ought to put all its eggs in one basket. He is counting on approval of the design and on passage of an $8.4 billion transportation tax this year whose prospects might best be described as dicey.
In signing the state’s transportation budget Monday, the governor vetoed an $81 million appropriation for bridge planning – a deal that had been worked out in the Legislature to quell opposition from members of the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus. The money would have kept the lights on at the Columbia River Crossing project, but the bulk of the money could not have been spent until after the U.S. Coast Guard turns thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the project this fall. And that presumably would have allowed lawmakers to debate a big construction appropriation as part of a tax package next year.
Inslee’s veto Monday puts the state in a do-or-die position: If lawmakers don’t pass the transportation-tax increase this year, providing $450 million for the project, the $3.4 billion bridge project could fizzle for lack of funds. Inslee’s point is that the bridge project would fizzle anyway. If lawmakers don’t say yes to a transportation tax this year, he says the state likely will lose $800 million in federal funding.
“The reality is starting to come home, and I think this veto may sharpen legislators’ minds about the current state of reality,” the governor said. “We have to have a reality-based plan across the Columbia River, and if this veto helps them awaken to the reality, that would be great.”
No Middle Ground
By using his veto pen on the appropriation, the governor signaled that he believes there is no middle ground. But from the perspective of the project’s critics, he has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. The $81 million appropriation aimed to keep the project on life support until the Coast Guard can decide whether the low-hanging bridge design presents a hazard to navigation and places too significant a burden on existing and future industrial development upstream of Interstate 5. The current design proposal would offer just 116 feet clearance.
The bridge design, years in the making, aims to replace a bridge whose earliest segments were erected in 1917, but which, it should be noted, was substantially expanded and rebuilt in 1958. While the Interstate Bridge is of the steel-truss type that was common a century ago and its design makes its age apparent, its soundness hasn’t been so much an issue as the traffic jams that come at peak hours and whenever the lift segment is raised. The new design represents a series of compromises – there is no drawspan to allow the passage of barge loads that require high clearance. There is no rise in the center, thus allowing the Portland-area light-rail system to gain entry to Clark County via the new bridge. And the overall bridge height has been kept low enough to avoid trouble for the flight paths at a nearby civil aviation airfield on the Washington side of the river.
Critics say it is the wrong design in the wrong place. The bridge would make it impossible for major fabricators upstream of the bridge to ship bulky loads downriver, and they say it would do little for traffic congestion as there are no current plans to widen the freeway approaches. At the same time it has sparked political debate in the greater Vancouver area about the extension of light rail, because it would obligate Clark County residents to pick up part of the cost for operating the Portland-area Tri-Met system. That idea has been shot down repeatedly at the polls. Opposition also runs high to tolling, with some estimates indicating that Clark County residents would pay as much as $8 to make their daily commute to Portland. About $100 million has been spent on bridge planning so far, most since 2006, but critics say cautionary voices have been squelched.
While the design has represented a series of compromises, so too has the process of writing legislation. The transportation budget, normally the least controversial of bills, was held up by debate over the bridge. The final deal provided the $81 million for further bridge planning, but it stipulated that $78 million of it could not be spent until after the Coast Guard makes a final decision. That would have allowed a redesign of the bridge should it become necessary. Opponents, led in the Senate by Don Benton, R-Vancouver and Ann Rivers, R-LaCenter, suggest that the Coast Guard might require such high mitigation payments to upstream industrial users that it would make the project infeasible.
By vetoing money that would have kept the project alive until the decision is made, and by counting on passage of a transportation tax plan whose prospects appear troubled at best, Rivers said the governor may have gone too far. She told her hometown newspaper, The Columbian of Vancouver, “It feels a lot like he just pulled the plug on the project.”
Gambling on Transportation Tax
The governor is gambling on the passage of an $8.4 billion transportation tax increase by the Legislature this session, one of those periodic moves to raise gas taxes and other transportation-related taxes that seemingly come once a decade. The signature element of the plan is a 10-cent increase in the state’s gas tax, to be phased in over the next decade. The current proposal would provide $450 million for the bridge, Washington state’s share of the project. It also would provide funding for other so-called mega-projects statewide, and for transit and for environmental projects. That’s part of the political calculation – by including the state’s green coalition in the proceeds, advocates are hoping to expand its appeal.
But even without the bridge as a sticking point the tax plan has proven difficult for lawmakers to swallow. Senate leaders have balked at the idea of passing the taxes in the Legislature rather than sending them to the ballot, and they are doubly skittish regarding any plan that would commit the state to the new bridge as currently designed. As recently as last week, Senate leaders, in a meeting with reporters, reiterated their opposition. Rivers told reporters, “I do not see a transportation package this year that includes funding for the Columbia River Crossing.”
Inslee said his aim in vetoing the $81 million appropriation was to demonstrate that there is no room for compromise. “It there are no other funds appropriated, the bridge project cannot move forward because federal funding could disappear. If the Coast Guard permit is not issued, there is no need for the waste of $81 million, for there is no other viable option available to us. In addition, this section would prohibit the expenditure of federal funding needed to actually build the bridge. Simply put, $81 million cannot paper over the fact that the moment of truth has come for the I-5 crossing over the Columbia River.”
No More Mr. Nice Guy
Inslee’s my-way-or-no-way approach is winning plaudits from those who support the bridge project. State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, pumped out a press release that said it is time for lawmakers to “wake up and smell the financial coffee.” And he suggests that there may be political consequences for the Senate majority if it is seen as the caucus that killed the project. “It’s understandable that the tempers of Clark County motorists and businesses are burning while Senate Republicans are fiddling around on the CRC issue,” Moeller is quoted as saying.
But if construction of a bridge is the goal, rather than creation of a political issue, the veto represents a big gamble for Inslee, because Senate leaders have said repeatedly that if the only choice is a poorly designed bridge, they’d rather just say no. They point out that there are numerous other options, including repair of the existing bridge or a new bridge at a different location – possibilities they say were not fully explored during the multi-year planning process. But with his veto and his advocacy for an immediate decision on the tax package, the governor appears to be turning up the pressure for a decision this year. Inslee was among dozens of transportation advocates who appeared on the Capitol steps Monday morning to demand action on the tax package, at a rally attended by about 300.
“One of the most important things we can do is to keep I-5 healthy,” he told the crowd. “We know that this is the aorta of the economy in the state of Washington. We need to build a bridge across the Columbia to make sure that the entire economy of the state of Washington does not depend on rotting wood pilings sunk in the Columbia River mud in 1917. We ought to get that bill this year.”
The rally was the only outward sign of activity at the statehouse so far in this week-long-special session. Lawmakers returned last Monday ostensibly to finish the business they started in the 105-day special session earlier this year, but as budget negotiators work behind closed doors there has been no action whatever on the floors of the House and Senate. Worth noting is that some 13 lawmakers stood in the crowd at the Monday transportation rally, not quite a majority of the legislators who were in the capital city on the eighth day of the special session, but a large percentage. But only one of them, Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, was a member of the Majority Coalition.
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