Columbia River Bridge Fight Could Determine Fate of SR 167

By Jordan Schrader, April 12, 2013, The News Tribune

The South Sound’s big road project is the most expensive one riding on the Legislature’s decision on a gas tax increase.

That means the so-called Puget Sound Gateway, endorsed last week by Gov. Jay Inslee, also has the most to lose if a fight over a Vancouver bridge ends up sinking the whole tax package.

Republicans turned up the heat last week on the Columbia River Crossing bridge replacement that also is a priority for Democrat Inslee. Light rail has helped make the bridge a political lightning rod.

“What we’re telling him is, if the CRC’s connected there’s zero chance of a statewide revenue package,” Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom said after leaving a meeting with the governor. Tom, a Medina Democrat, is aligned with Republicans in the coalition running the state Senate.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, the Democrat who is spearheading the business- and labor-backed push for transportation taxes, expects to release the latest version of her plan Monday with just two weeks left in the 105-day legislative session to push it through the House and then Senate.

Its centerpiece remains the same: adding a dime to the gas tax to bring it to 47.5 cents a gallon.

Clibborn said more than $1.25 billion of the money raised would go to the “gateway” extending state Route 167 to Tacoma and state Route 509 in SeaTac. That doesn’t count an estimated $330 million in revenue from tolls on the two new highways and on new Interstate 5 HOT lanes spanning from Interstate 90 to state Route 16.

The controversial new bridge to Portland is still in the mix, too, but Clibborn isn’t calling it a deal-breaker.

The transportation chairwoman from Mercer Island said the bridge’s fate is in the Senate’s hands. “It will be their decision. I want a revenue package, and they’ll have to figure out if that’s going to be a part of it or not.”

Inslee wouldn’t say Friday whether he would support a package that leaves out the crossing, but he said he remains “diligent and resolute” that the bridge should be built, especially with the hundreds of millions of federal dollars it would pull down for Washington.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came to Olympia last week to dangle that federal money, which is available only if Washington and Oregon kick in

$450 million each for the more than $3 billion project. Oregon has committed to its share.

But Vancouver Sen. Don Benton and other Republicans laid into LaHood with questions and criticism of the bridge as currently designed. Political theater followed: first Benton putting out a press release saying he “schooled” LaHood in a fight that ended “Benton 1, U.S. transportation secretary 0,” then Democrats sending a letter to LaHood apologizing for his “undignified reception.”

Besides wariness over extending Portland’s light rail into Washington, which local voters have opposed raising sales tax to do, Republicans also say they’re worried about the effects on businesses dependent on shipping if a lower bridge made for trains is built.

They also raised questions about whether there have been cost overruns and regulatory violations on the project, and wrote a letter to Inslee on Friday calling for an independent investigation.

Benton said the money would be better spent on Route 167 or other road projects – although he opposes a revenue package that would raise that money.

“People do not want us to come here and raise their taxes,” he said.

The governor stumped in Tacoma on Friday for Clibborn’s tax package – which he called a “good framework” without lending support to the specifics of the revenue sources.

He singled out the gateway project as creating hundreds of construction jobs and tens of thousands of permanent jobs by speeding the shipping of exports in industries from aerospace to construction equipment.

Inslee called for a lobbying blitz by the crowd of port officials, industry leaders, longshoremen and others.

“We’ve got to deliver some messages and talk to some of the local elected state legislative leaders,” he said. “The message we’ve got to send is really, really simple: If you want to get to heaven, help build 167.”

The coalition backing Route 167 on Thursday endorsed the slimmed-down gateway concept championed by Clibborn, and said it has committed to raising a share of the money – $70 million for what it views as a $1.73 billion project. The group is hoping to tap federal, local, private or tribal sources.

That would leave a roughly similar amount for others to find, presumably SR 509 supporters, who said they will raise money but have not committed to an amount.

Port of Seattle commissioner Courtney Gregoire said the King County group has also put together a strong coalition, and said she didn’t think drivers farther north would resent paying tolls on HOT lanes in the Seattle area that pay for projects in the South Sound.

“I think there is an understanding of what international trade means” to the whole state, said Gregoire, daughter of former Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Without faster connections to the Washington ports, supporters say, farms and factories could turn to Canadian ports or even a widened Panama Canal as a faster way to get their products to Asia.

“It’ll be incremental,” Port of Tacoma commissioner Don Meyer said, “and the next thing you know we’ll be a backwater port with backwater jobs.”

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