By Eric Florip and Steve Matheiu, January 16, 2013, The Columbian
State Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center, proposed legislation on Wednesday to block a light rail line on the Columbia River Crossing.
Senate Bill 5090 would prevent the state’s transportation department from spending money on the design or construction of a new Interstate 5 Bridge as long as that project includes a light rail line. The bill’s text also calls the CRC proposal “unacceptable” for a number of reasons, including the fact that voters living in the C-Tran district last year rejected a sales tax to pay for light rail maintenance and operation in Vancouver.
From Rivers’ point of view, the bill is an attempt to create “further protections of my constituency,” she said. “The people have spoken. I want them to know that I’m listening. … I’m trying to get others to listen.”
But state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said the anti-light rail bill is pointless and divisive, especially in a time when state lawmakers are working on a major transportation funding package that would allow voters to decide whether to raise revenue for many of the state’s major transportation needs.
“I think it’s a terrible idea and has zero chance of passing,” Moeller said. He also called the measure “a political move.”
Senate Bill 5090 would have to pass the state House, which has a Democratic majority, and get the signature of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who has said he supports light rail on the CRC.
As proposed, the $3.5 billion CRC project would replace the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River, rebuild freeway interchanges and extend a light rail line from Portland into Vancouver. The CRC plans call for Washington and Oregon to chip in $450 million each. Project leaders hope both states’ legislatures commit to at least some of that money this year.
Benton and Rivers are among a group of Republican lawmakers from Southwest Washington who have called for a redesign of the CRC that excludes light rail.
In a statement they signed in November, Benton and Rivers acknowledged that a redesign of the CRC would take more time, but “we know (a bridge replacement) cannot succeed without our support … . Once there is a project alternative that has the support of Clark County citizens, we will put all of our resources into making the bridge project a reality.”
Benton, who did not return a call on Wednesday, has said in the past that he could discuss doling out state money for the CRC “if the light rail component comes off.”
Local leaders picked light rail as part of the preferred alternative for the CRC in 2008. Subsequent studies — and a federal Record of Decision in 2011 — are tied to that design. CRC supporters say light rail remains an essential component of the project, and removing it would mean having to start over, potentially setting the process back years.
In October, state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond made it clear that’s not a path the CRC is planning to pursue this late in the game.
“If you don’t have light rail on the bridge, you don’t have a project,” Hammond told a legislative oversight committee gathered in Vancouver.
Moeller reiterated that point Wednesday, saying that removing light rail would delay replacing the I-5 Bridge for an entire generation.
“That means we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board,” Moeller said. “That puts us back another 15 years. We miss our window of opportunity for funding.”
Rivers disagreed that removing light rail would create that lengthy of a delay on the project.
“I’m not convinced that it would be that significant,” she said. Removing light rail is “the financially sound thing to do and doesn’t place a burden on our children for generations to come,” she added.
Oregon commission advances tolling
Also on Wednesday, the Oregon Transportation Commission moved eventual tolling on Interstate 5 one step closer to reality. The commission authorized the CRC as a “tollway project.”
The action is similar to a move taken last year by the Washington Legislature, which authorized using tolls on I-5 to help pay for the project, said CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney. Last year’s legislation also prohibited tolling on the nearby Interstate 205 bridge, but that doesn’t necessarily prohibit Oregon lawmakers from tolling the bridge.
Wednesday’s vote did not establish the actual rates drivers would pay to cross the Columbia River. That task falls to both states’ transportation commissions, who have indicated they will work jointly to set toll rates.
The CRC is currently scheduled to begin construction in late 2014. Project leaders have said tolling could begin as soon as 2015.