By Stevie Mathieu, April 4, 2013, The Columbian
House Democrats on Thursday released their two-year transportation budget proposal, which would include more than $49 million to cover ongoing planning costs for the Columbia River Crossing, as well as restore the state Transportation Commission’s authority to set tolls for the megaproject.
The budget plan released would allocate $8.4 billion over the next two years — slightly less than the transportation budget proposal unveiled Wednesday in the state Senate.
The budget plan omits any new construction dollars for the CRC. In order to keep the $3.4 billion project on track, project planners say they need Washington to commit this year to paying a portion of the $450 million construction costs for the project.
The $49 million in the House transportation budget plan does not increase the scope of the project. It allows CRC planners to keep working on the project.
Lawmakers have said repeatedly that there simply isn’t enough revenue to pay for new transportation projects this year. Backers of the CRC are hoping a separate transportation revenue package will work its way through the Legislature to fill that void.
Earlier this session, House Democrats unveiled a transportation revenue package, separate from a budget proposal, that would increase taxes in order to pay for some of the state’s largest transportation projects, including $450 million for the CRC. The project drew some criticism and is being reworked.
Democratic Rep. Judy Clibborn of Mercer Island said she is optimistic about the forthcoming revenue package’s prospects.
“The governor’s on board. The speaker said he’d run it,” said Clibborn, referring to House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. “The coalitions around the project are raring to go.”
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.
The project to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail into Vancouver and rebuild five miles of freeway still faces major financial questions.
Additionally, voters’ passage of Initiative 1185 last fall means the authority legislators gave the state Transportation Commission to set toll rates on the Columbia River Crossing will need further approval from state lawmakers. Transportation Commission officials have said they’ll seek legislative approval to toll the CRC during this session or a future session, and they expect state lawmakers to return tolling authority back to the commission.
Transportation Commission officials say allowing partisan legislators to set toll rates would raise red flags for toll bond investors and ultimately increase the cost of the bonds.
Clibborn called the budget proposal a bipartisan effort, a sentiment echoed by Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, ranking minority member of the House Transportation Committee.
“We will continue to work to improve this budget, but a no-new-taxes budget is the right approach,” said Orcutt in a written statement.
The Senate’s transportation budget plan released Wednesday also included no new construction money for the CRC. It does include nearly $82 million during the 2013-2015 budget cycle to maintain ongoing planning costs for the project. The plan restores the state Transportation Commission’s tolling authority over the Tacoma Narrow Bridge, but it doesn’t restore the agency’s authority to set tolls for the CRC.
The House and Senate budget plans received public hearings on Thursday afternoon, drawing testimony from about a dozen Clark County residents who expressed their opposition to the CRC. Some of them said they do not want the state to give any more planning money to the CRC, and many of them criticized tolls, the CRC’s inclusion of a light rail line, and the impact construction would have on downtown Vancouver businesses.
A couple senators on the committee explained that the money in the proposed budget is necessary to keep the project alive. It doesn’t increase or decrease the scope of the project, they said.
State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, sent out an email Wednesday asking Southwest Washington citizens to travel to Olympia and testify against the CRC.
“At the very least, there must be a proviso in the budget that requires these (planning) funds to be spent on a redesign of the project,” Benton wrote.
A couple CRC supporters asked lawmakers to keep the planning money in their budget and keep the lights on in the CRC offices. The project isn’t perfect, but planners need money to address those challenges, they said.
“If we kill this now, we will never be able to answer the height issue,” Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce President Kelly Parker said, referencing a controversy over the height of the bridge and whether it allows enough clearance for industrial river traffic. “If we kill this now, we will have to start over.”