By Stevie Mathieu, April 18, 2013, The Columbian
The Washington Senate’s transportation budget would require a forensic audit of the Columbia River Crossing, thanks to one of several CRC-related amendments added to the budget proposal Thursday morning.
The amendments are seen as a compromise between those Senate Transportation Committee members who support the CRC, and those who don’t. The budget was stuck in committee after Vancouver Republican Sen. Don Benton, a transportation committee member, questioned why the state would want to give any more money to the CRC, even $81 million to cover the project’s ongoing planning costs.
Benton had proposed an amendment to slash those planning dollars from the Senate’s transportation budget, but he withdrew that amendment on Thursday morning in light of the compromise reached. The tweaked budget proposal passed out of the transportation committee unanimously and still needs a full Senate vote. It never included the $450 million CRC supporters requested this year for constructing the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement.
The forensic audit of the CRC would be completed by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee. That type of audit would “investigate fraud, malfeasance, and misuse of public funds,” according the text of the amendment, which Benton proposed.
“It is time for a transparent, full audit of what has been going on with those funds, and we believe this amendment will achieve that goal,” Benton said.
There is no evidence to suggest that an audit of the CRC would uncover fraud, transportation committee co-chair Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, said.
“I just want the members to be aware of how many audits there are out there this year; it’s interesting how fast they’re adding up,” Eide, a CRC supporter, told Benton during the committee meeting. “And you know what? These things cost money. But at this time, I will support your amendment.”
Another amendment, successfully added to the budget proposal by Benton and Eide, would freeze nearly all of the $81 million in CRC planning dollars until the U.S. Coast Guard approves the bridge design. The CRC had long planned on a new bridge with 95 feet of headroom, before the Coast Guard and others rejected that height as too low. The bridge design was elevated to 116 feet above the water, and that new plan awaits Coast Guard approval.
If the Coast Guard rejects the new bridge height, that planning money would be rerouted to study a new bridge design that excludes light rail transit from the CRC. As proposed, the $3.4 billion CRC project would replace the
I-5 Bridge, extend Portland’s light rail system into Vancouver and rebuild five miles of freeway and freeway interchanges near the bridge.
A third Benton amendment would give CRC auditors more access to the project’s financial information by making certain private companies’ “financial, commercial, and proprietary information” accessible through public records requests. The change in public records law would only exist during the 2013-2015 budget cycle and would only apply to companies that receive taxpayer money to work on transportation projects.
Eide said she would support that amendment for now, but she has concerns about allowing public records requests for a private company’s proprietary information.
The House has passed a transportation budget plan, too. That proposal includes roughly $49 million for ongoing planning costs for the CRC. Basically, that planning money would keep the lights on at the CRC office, lawmakers said. Legislators also have said that there’s not enough state revenue to pay for many of the state’s looming transportation needs.
The House and Senate transportation budget plans exist separately from another broad transportation proposal that would increase gas taxes and some vehicle fees to cover the cost of several of the state’s transportation projects. That revenue plan, which still needs House and Senate approval, would provide the $450 million CRC planners say they need to keep the project on track.
Washington and Oregon are expected to jointly pay about a third of the CRC’s total cost. Plans call for federal funding sources and tolling to cover the rest. Oregon legislators have already approved spending Oregon’s share of $450 million on the CRC, but that spending agreement is contingent on whether Washington legislators do the same this year.
If the transportation tax package leaves the House as-is but the Senate strips the CRC money from it, the proposal would likely go to a special conference committee, made up of House and Senate members, to hammer out the differences. Whatever compromise is reached would require another vote in each chamber.
The 2013 Washington Legislature is scheduled to conclude its session on April 28.