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

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.”