By Stevie Mathieu, April 19, 2013, The Columbian
People on both sides of the divisive Columbia River Crossing project took advantage Friday of one of the last chances this session to tell state lawmakers how they feel about the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement.
They sounded off on a House proposal that would raise gas taxes and vehicle fees to pay for several of the state’s transportation demands. The $8.4 billion transportation tax package includes the $450 million CRC supporters say the project needs this year, or else federal funding could be jeopardized.
Legislators fighting for that CRC money have fewer than 10 days to pass the transportation tax plan. The Washington legislative session is scheduled to conclude on April 28.
Interstate 5 “is a major freight route for the West Coast,” Rep. Judy Clibborn, Democratic chair of the House Transportation Committee, said while speaking Friday in support of the CRC. “I know it’s controversial. We need to think about how it affects the rest of the West Coast.”
The public testimony that followed was lengthy, lasting more than 4 hours and drawing more supporters of the tax package than opponents. Government officials from across the state praised the package’s projects, including $1.27 billion to the Puget Sound Gateway Project (which improves state Highways 167 and
509), $675 million to widen Interstate 405 between Renton and Lynnwood, and $420 million for the North Spokane Corridor project.
The House transportation tax plan would raise revenue over 12 years through an increased gas tax, a commercial vehicle weight fee, a $5 vehicle registration fee and other fees. A 10-cent per gallon gas tax hike would phase in slowly, with a portion of the tax increase kicking in every two years. The first increase would be 5 cents, followed by two 2-cent increases, then an additional 1 cent increase.
“If transportation is the lifeblood of commerce, then when you get down to it, this bill is about commerce,” said Paul Montague, of Identity Clark County. He said the federal government is ready to step up with its share for the CRC, and Oregon is ready to provide its share, too. “We need to move forward.”
Kim Capeloto, executive vice president of Riverview Community Bank; Kelly Parker, president of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce; and Melinda Merrill, a lobbyist with Fred Meyer, also asked the committee to support the CRC.
Merrill said Fred Meyer has 120 stores throughout Washington state, and 100 of the company’s trucks cross the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River each week. Relieving I-5 congestion by updating the outdated lift bridge would save Fred Meyer tens of thousands of dollars in fuel costs and $50,000 in labor costs each year, Merrill said.
Brian Willoughby, a spokesman for Legacy Salmon Creek, said the I-5 Bridge is dangerous for commuters. Each year, 400 vehicle accidents happen on and near the bridge, which lacks shoulder lanes. Willoughby also said the bridge hurts emergency responders’ ability to quickly transport patients between Vancouver and Portland.
Vancouver high school students Casey Decker and Dylan Koester told legislators that they support the CRC and the project’s current design, which extends Portland’s light rail line into Vancouver.
“I like light rail, and I want it in Vancouver,” Decker said. “It’s an inexpensive alternative for people who can’t or don’t own cars.”
Carolyn Crain, of Vancouver, testified on Friday that she would rather see an investment in increased bus services instead of light rail transit in Vancouver.
“Not all of us believe that transit is the wave of the future when it’s stuck on rail lines,” she said.
Additionally, Clark County’s lobbyist Mike Burgess told the House Transportation Committee that the majority of the county’s commissioners oppose the CRC.
Anti-tax advocate Tim Eyman also spoke out against the revenue plan, holding up the passage of Initiative 1185 as evidence that Washingtonians don’t want more taxes. That measure required a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to raise taxes, but the two-thirds rule was later struck down by the state Supreme Court.
“In November, the voters made it abundantly clear how they felt about taxes,” Eyman said.
CRC backup plans
The House Transportation Committee also considered on Friday a Plan B approach if the other plan fails to secure the 60-percent majority vote in the Legislature necessary to issue general obligation bonds to finance the CRC.
The Plan B option would issue toll revenue bonds that would be repaid entirely through tolling, which would only require a simple-majority vote in the Legislature.
Those types of bonds are more expensive because they are bonded at a higher rate, though, so the Plan B approach would allow the state to borrow up to $650 million in bonds for the CRC that would later be repaid by tolls. CRC leaders already are banking on tolls to generate as much as $1.3 billion toward the $3.4 billion project.