OLYMPIA, April 16.—An effort to promote a gas-tax increase for road projects this year appears to be in deep trouble because of Senate opposition to a bridge project at Vancouver, and the clash could deliver a decisive defeat for Gov. Jay Inslee.
Heavy lobbying from Inslee doesn’t seem to be overcoming resistance from fiscally conservative Senate lawmakers to the Columbia River Crossing. Those from the Vancouver area maintain the new bridge is fatally flawed in politics, design and financing, and they say Clark County residents will wind up paying the price. Even as House Transportation Chair Judy Clibborn prepares to roll out an $8 billion tax proposal today that would include $450 million for the project, Senate leaders say that if it includes the bridge, its already iffy chances are reduced to nothing. “What we are telling them is that if the CRC is connected, there is zero chance of the state having a revenue package,” says Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina.
Clibborn says she plans to move forward nevertheless – thus forcing lawmakers to make a decision one way or another. And it is an indication of the way things have blown up in a statehouse where transportation rarely is a matter of major contention. Clibborn says the only way this one might be settled is for the House and Senate to fight it out. “I am sending it over, and if they want to take the CRC out, they will have to do it on their side,” she says. “That is their problem.”
Also imperiled is the passage of the state’s transportation budget. Votes have been delayed for more than a week in the House and Senate because the normally non-controversial spending bill includes planning money for the bridge project. In an effort to break the logjam, Gov. Inslee has been pulling out the stops in recent days, even bringing federal transportation secretary Ray LaHood to Washington state to talk tough to the Republican-leaning Senate majority. So it isn’t just the bridge that is on the line, it is also the governor’s prestige – and the battle of the bridge provides the biggest test yet of his leadership ability.
Ten-Cent Gas-Tax on Horizon
Clibborn will present a transportation tax proposal today that represents a considerable scaling-back of the $10 billion plan she advanced in February. The new proposal retains its signature feature, a ten-cent gas tax increase that will be fully implemented over the course of 10 years. But it ditches the most controversial tax elements – a tax on sales of new bicycles, an increase in the state’s hazardous substance tax, and reimposition of the state’s motor vehicle excise tax – the license-tab tax rejected by voters with a pair of initiatives more than a decade ago. It also offers a more-refined list of projects that would be funded by the taxes – with the aim of convincing every lawmaker that his or her district has something to gain.
Clibborn still hopes lawmakers will pass a transportation package this year. Transportation interests have been working three years on the latest tax proposal, an always-difficult effort that forces negotiation between dozens of stakeholder organizations – the highway-construction lobby, local governments, business, labor, environmental groups, transit advocates and others. Even when they can agree, they still have to sell the public on a tax increase. And Clibborn admits a bit of frustration that the whole thing is being held up by the bridge. The Federal Transit Administration is offering $850 million; the Federal Highway Administration is offering $400 million; Oregon is offering $450 million. It all comes down to whether the state of Washington will put up its share. The Democrat-controlled House will support the project, she said. “We don’t have a problem with it over here.”
Massive Bungling Charged
At issue is replacement of the Interstate Bridge, the original highway link between Vancouver and Portland. It’s actually two bridges – the northbound lanes run across a steel-truss bridge built in 1917, with a lift segment that makes it possible for tall ships and cargo to pass beneath. An identical twin carrying the southbound lanes was added in 1958 when Interstate 5 replaced old Highway 99. Much of the centerspan of the old bridge was replaced at that time, raising the clearance and reducing the number of traffic interruptions. Neither segment is in imminent danger of failure, but community leaders have been agitating for years for replacement, citing traffic congestion and concerns that old bridge pilings will eventually give way.
Arguably the current effort began in the 1990s, and some $100 million has been spent on planning since 2005. Opponents say it is a tale of massive bungling. Civic interests wanted the lift segment gone so that traffic wouldn’t be impeded. Transit interests wanted a flat bridge so that light rail could be run across. Aviation interests wanted a low bridge so that flights in and out of a nearby civil field could continue. And for some reason the engineers disregarded the concerns of river-user interests, even though the record establishes that they had raised objections from the start. So when the bi-state planning agency submitted final plans last year for a bridge with 97 feet clearance, the Coast Guard said no, officials said they were shocked, and people like state Sen. Don Benton said told you so.
Benton, R-Vancouver, has been leading the fight against the bridge plan in the Legislature. He calls it an expensive proposition that will kill jobs upstream and won’t do a thing to reduce traffic congestion because there are no plans to add lanes to I-5 on either side of the river. Clark County commuters will pay a heavy cost with tolls that might reach $8 a day, he says. And the plan is predicated on the extension of Portland-area light rail to Vancouver, a proposition Vancouver voters have rejected four times – they don’t want to have to pick up a multi-million dollar tab for a rail project that will benefit a small segment of the commuting public. A revision to the plans, pegging the bridge at 116 feet, limits the impact on industry to three major firms on the Washington side of the river. Planners are considering paying for their relocation. But it won’t be cheap. All by themselves they are responsible for 4,000 direct jobs in the Vancouver area.
“It is way too expensive, and that expense will be borne primarily on the backs of Clark County residents,” he says. The project might make engineering sense if the light rail was removed, Benton maintains. A high-rise bridge, like the nearby I-205 crossing, would allow enough clearance for river traffic beneath. But trains can’t negotiate that kind of rise and bridge proponents say the economics fall apart if trains aren’t included. And no one seems to be talking about alternative ideas, like a separate bridge for rail, or running trains across the existing rail bridge a short distance downstream. Benton and Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, are calling for an independent forensic audit of the bridge planning process, charging waste, fraud and abuse. “Whether you’re for or against the project doesn’t matter, because this is about how DOT is conducting business and it stinks to high heaven,” he says.
Conflict Could Hold Up Transportation Budget
It’s not just the planning process that is bollixed up. It’s also the political decision-making process in the Legislature. The Senate right now is controlled by a Republican-leaning majority, 23 Republicans and two Democrats, and they say there’s no budging on the bridge. Republican leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, notes that the bridge-clearance issue isn’t just a concern for Vancouver-area industry – it also affects upstream communities like the Tri-Cities, Walla Walla and Clarkston. “Anything that perpetuates the light rail across the Columbia is a nonstarter for the majority coalition,” he says.
That spells big trouble in the Senate, not just on the transportation-tax plan but also on the transportation budget, normally one of the least controversial bills of the year. Suddenly one of the session’s bright ideas – a co-chairmanship of the Senate Transportation Committee in the name of bipartisanship – threatens to descend into statemate. The panel is chaired by members of both parties — Sens. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and Curtis King, R-Yakima – and each has veto power over the other.
Some sort of allocation for planning money is required to keep the project going, and the Senate version of the budget provides $82 million for bridge planning. The hitch is that Benton says he has the votes to push through an amendment that would force a redesign to eliminate light rail. Eide prefers a softer amendment that would essentially allow the Coast Guard to decide – it is expected to complete a review of revised plans in September. Both are sticking to their guns and the dispute has prevented the committee from taking a vote on its budget for a full week. King, a skeptic of the CRC plans, says he thinks a budget can be passed in the Senate, but there’s no telling whether it will be anything the House will be able to accept.
Governor Stakes His Rep
Gov. Inslee has been doing his best – or at least something – to try to break the logjam. He is firmly on the side of the current plan. It stands to reason: Bridge construction means 1,700 jobs, albeit temporary ones, at union rates. Relocation construction might mean even more, but he says a big redesign that pegs the bridge even higher would more than double the cost of the project. “It is now or never for building a bridge across the Columbia River,” he said at a news conference last week. “We either take action this year or there will not be action for more than a decade across the Columbia River.”
Over the last week, reporters in the wings of the Senate have noted a flurry of activity on Inslee’s part, including a number of meetings between his staff and Senate leaders over the last week. Last week Inslee brought in LaHood, who held a private meeting with coalition members – and in a rare but accidental case of legislative transparency, a recording of the meeting was briefly posted on YouTube by the coalition. Though it was taken down almost immediately, it was reposted by Senate Democrats. The recording is no longer available for public viewing because the majority coalition claimed copyright Monday.
But Washington State Wire downloaded its own copy during the brief period before the recording was pulled down. That recording demonstrates how political arguments are made when the doors are closed. LaHood, seated with Inslee, warns lawmakers that they might lose the more-than-$1 billion they stand to gain from the feds. Don’t worry about the impact on local business, LaHood tells the assembled Republicans — government can find a way to compensate. “Sometime you’ve got to fish or cut bait. Hey, that’s what you get elected to do. You are elected to make decisions. It is decision time. It is decision time, and if you are offended by it I am sorry.
“We have been at this now for 12 years, we’re at the point where we are ready to put up our part of it, a pretty big chunk of money. …But lookit, now is the hour, this is it, we’ve done everything we possibly can.”
LaHood only managed to make people angry, Benton says. “He came into our caucus like he was strong-arming members of Congress or something,” he says — and this one isn’t going to be settled so easily.