By Johnathan J. Cooper, March 7, 2014, Associated Press
The Oregon Department of Transportation announced Friday that it’s shutting down planning for the Columbia River Crossing project after the state Legislature declined to approve funding to build a new Interstate 5 and light-rail bridge into Washington.
Moments after the Legislature adjourned, ODOT said it “will begin the process of orderly archival and closeout.” Spending will be reduced immediately, the agency said in a news release, and the project will be shut down completely by the end of May. The Transportation Department will preserve all research, environmental reviews and engineering work for potential use in the future.
“This project would have replaced an aging bridge that is vulnerable to a seismic event; it would have improved transit options for people living in the region; and it would have helped the region’s economy grow,” said Rachel Wray, a spokeswoman for Gov. John Kitzhaber, a staunch supporter of the project. “In short, the governor is disappointed.”
Lawmakers in Salem approved a two-state funding plan last year only to watch it wither in Olympia, Wash., where the Republicans who control the Senate vigorously oppose plans to use the new bridge to extend Portland’s light-rail system into Vancouver, Wash.
Proponents tried unsuccessfully to get Oregon to continue the project without Washington, using state and federal money along with revenue from tolls. They say it would reduce congestion and improve freight movement through the Northwest. The two existing lift bridges, one for traffic in each direction, cause congestion daily and are likely to fail in a major earthquake.
But they couldn’t overcome the opposition, which only grew after Washington backed out. Many worried that it would put too much risk on Oregon taxpayers, who would have to solely handle the burden if tolling revenue fell short or costs ran high. One of the strongest supporters in Oregon, Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz of Ontario, bowed out, saying he was concerned the project would end up devouring a large share of the state’s transportation funding.
In a statement as the Oregon Legislature was preparing to adjourn Friday, House Speaker Tina Kotek laid the blame for this year’s failure with both the Oregon Senate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who she said failed to provide “clear, public commitment.”
Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney had demanded that the Washington Legislature stand up first. With such strong opposition in the Senate, Kotek never called a vote in the House, though she maintains it could have passed.
“Oregon faces many challenges. These challenges require leaders with courage and a willingness to step up to tackle them head-on,” Kotek said. “Oregonians should know that in 2013 the Oregon Legislature acted, and in 2014, the Oregon House was ready to lead again.”
Washington Sen. Don Benton, a vocal opponent who helped lead the charge against the project in Olympia, was gleeful about the failure in Oregon.
“I’m very happy, and I’m sure all of my constituents and many in Clark County who aren’t my constituents are thrilled to death to see this horrible boondoggle finally come to a close,” Benton said.