An ambitious effort to replace the existing I-5 bridge connecting Vancouver, Washington, to Portland and to add light rail at a projected cost of $3.l to $3.5 billion has met resistance from Washington legislators on funding, light rail extension and tolling, among other issues.
Washington senators are proposing legislation this session that would eliminate the light-rail portion of the project.
Departing Gov. Chris Gregoire urged Washington legislators during her State of the State Address Tuesday to continue progress on the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project. Lawmakers recognize that it has not been without its challenges.
CRC’s estimated cost would be covered with financial assistance coming from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts Grant ($850 million), federal highway funds ($400 million), Oregon and Washington equally ($450 million each), and toll revenues (about $1.3 billion).
While financial confidence in the federal government waivers, and comments made from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) indicating a level of uncertain cooperation, Sen. Ann Rivers (R-18th District, La Center) is not optimistic that funding will be secured.
“The words that I heard from ODOT were ‘if’ and ‘hoping,’” she said.
“If we get it, it will be $100 million for eight years, except for the last year, when it will be $50 million. In these fiscal-cliff times, can we count on that program (New Starts) even being there in seven years,” wondered Rivers.
“It’s a little bit like smoke and mirrors right now and I’m not comfortable with that way of doing business. We don’t do business that way around our dinner tables, and I don’t think our government has any business doing business that way,” she added.
Rep. Sharon Wylie (D-49th District, Vancouver) did not express as much concern about federal funding.
“What’s happening at the federal level is problematic, but I think that when you look at any large institution, there is an ebb and flow of political realities and there’s a reason why our governmental institutions have evolved in such a way that they are hard to change,” she said.
However, on the topic of state funding, Wylie believes that financing will be a challenge for Washington State.
“I don’t think that the state’s going to be able to find the money for any of its pieces unless there is a statewide infrastructure financing package that will involve lots of projects,” she said.
“We have a volatile sales tax that is totally dependent on a consumer economy and Oregon has an income tax that’s totally dependent on people having growth in their income,” Wylie observed. “They’re in better shape during bad times than I think we are,” she said.
Wylie is concerned that businesses may be forced to relocate as a result of the project and claims she is open to alternatives that could help save Washingtonians money. The Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) anticipates 59 residential displacements and 69 commercial displacements due to the CRC project.
“I want to see the cost as low as possible with little impact on everyday people. I want to see our local business, Thompson Metal Fab – a statewide business – not be put out of business by this,” Wylie said.
According to Rep. and House Speaker Pro Tempore Jim Moeller (D-49th District, Vancouver), “Federal funding is going to be difficult considering the current economic climate and it’s going to be difficult to get the state funding, for both Oregon and Washington.”
Oregon Metro Councilor Bob Stacey, in a memo to fellow council members in December, urged that the Oregon Legislature “oppose expansion of Oregon’s share of CRC funding, from all sources, beyond $450 million.”
This was in response to legislation passed last session in Washington State (RCW 47.56.890(2)), which capped the overall CRC budget at just over $3.4 billion. According to Stacey, other legislation also prohibited Washington tolling until federal and state funds were secured, as well as banning tolling on the I-205 bridge. What concerns Stacey is that, without tolling on I-205, the $1.3 billion in toll revenue goal to pay for part of the CRC would not be met.
“This limitation will very likely prevent the CRC project from realizing its $1.2 billion target for funding from tolling. Failure to toll 1-205 will result in actual reduction in I-5 travel, as drivers choose to cross at I-205 to avoid the I-5 toll,” said Stacey.
Moeller disagrees with Stacey’s analysis. “People will probably divert to the I-205 bridge to start with, but people want to get home. And if they’re waiting in traffic because they’re going to save money from a toll, they’d much rather take the convenient route eventually,” he said.
Rivers is troubled by Stacey’s comments because she says not only would Oregon cap its financial commitment at $450 million, it would also extend the project all the way to the Rose Quarter in Northeast Portland. She said that about 65,000 commuters cross the I-5 bridge daily and many do so for minimum wage jobs. She worries that these commuters already have to pay a 9 percent income tax for working in Oregon and that this cost added to tolling costs or light rail ticket fees could place an even heavier financial burden on Washington families.
“Huger project on their side, limiting the funds to $450 million. Where can the excess be made up for Clark County, for my people? That’s completely unacceptable. It just doesn’t pass the straight-face test,” she said.
Somehow, Washington still needs to acquire funding for its portion of the project. And according to Rivers, Washington’s portion of the funding may have been given to the North Spokane Corridor project.
“I was informed by the Washington Policy Center that WSDOT has promised the same amount of money to the North-South freeway as it promised to CRC,” she said.
Moeller says that if the proper funding for the Washington portion of the project is not obtained, it will have come down to partisan politics.
“If we fail in getting the money from the state of Washington, I think we failed in the best deal we can get going across the river for the future of our state,” he said. “If we fail, it will not be because the Democrats wanted it to fail. It will be because the Republicans did.”
Opinions about light-rail are varied. According to the FEIS, the CRC is to extend light-rail transit from the Metropolitan Area Express (MAX) Yellow Line northern station, across Hayden Island and the Columbia River, through to the Clark College terminus in Vancouver. Supported by members of both Oregon and Washington legislatures, the completed light-rail extension is supposed to help relieve congestion as well as decrease greenhouse-gas emissions created by idling cars during peak periods of highway travel.
Moeller supports the extension of light-rail, believing it would benefit Washingtonians and help with traffic-congestion relief.
“Light rail is essential,” he maintained. “It’s part of the project. It was part of the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA); it was selected as the high-capacity-transit option. There are times when it makes sense to use light rail rather than bus rapid transit. We have a two-and-a-half mile spur that connects to 56 miles of established and running light rail. We would be foolish not to be a part of that.”
Rivers disagrees. “I feel like there were other options that were not fully vetted. I feel like mass transit must be a component on the bridge, but light rail is not the appropriate component,” she said.
Rivers claims that her frustrations with light rail partly stem from funding uncertainty. Light rail may cost more than $900 million, according to the CRC’s budget. She is in favor of alternative, more affordable transit options because, she said, if the project can secure the $850 million federal grant, which only pays for the installation of light rail (or even a smaller grant), Washington and Oregon would be money ahead if they decided on a less-expensive transportation mode.
“A real frustration for me is that the decision to put light rail on the bridge was made to make someone happy and it was a very expensive price tag for that happiness,” she said.
Based on the LPA, changes had to be made to C-Tran bus routes in order to better complement the new light rail system. This is anticipated to cause bus lines to re-route to downtown Vancouver, requiring riders to then transfer to light rail to get to their ultimate destinations.
“They talk about the congestion being solved on the bridge and yet recent studies show a time savings for the drivers of one minute,” said Rivers. “Compared to the express bus service the C-Tran offers us, I’m given to understand that it will take 20 to 30 minutes longer for people to take light rail than it will the current, existing express bus.”
Moeller believes that those taking light rail now would likely continue to do so. He said light-rail commuters are used to taking extra measures when it comes to planning their commutes. Additionally, some people view light rail as a less stressful experience. “They don’t have to worry about the hassles of finding and paying for parking,” he said.
Senate Bill (SB) 5090
Anxious about light rail are some Republicans and one Democrat in the Washington Senate. Sen. Don Benton (R-17th District, Vancouver), along with other senators, including Rivers, filed legislation that would prevent the extension of light rail from Oregon to Washington on Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver. Sen. Paull Shine (D-21st District, Lynnwood) and Sen. Jim Honeyford (15th District, Sunnyside) also signed onto the bill.
Reasons cited for this legislation include the $925 million price-tag of the light-rail design alternative, which Benton said would shift federal funds outside of the design corridor in order to make numerous capital improvements in transit for the state of Oregon at the expense of Washington state and a vote taken by Clark County in November did not support funding for the operating and maintenance costs of light rail.
“The bridge and light rail are areas where Senator Benton and I have agreed to disagree,” Wylie said.
Moeller was more forthcoming with his criticisms, claiming the filing of SB 5090 was grandstanding.
“It’s not going to get a hearing in the House,” Moeller declared. “All it is is an opportunity for Senator Benton to get his anti-light rail people together over in the Senate and have a little kumbaya.”
While toll fees would not be set until the Oregon and Washington transportation commissions enter a bi-state tolling agreement, Rivers still expresses concern that the tolling system would not be without issues.
“Folks from Mexico and Canada will not be paying any tolls,” she claimed. We’ve learned a lot from the (Lake Washington) SR 520 bridge-tolling issues and that is that our system isn’t perfect.” She maintains that tourists won’t be providing most of the toll revenue, rather It will come from Washington and Oregon drivers.
Moeller and Wylie agree that those tolling errors on the Lake Washington bridge are flukes within the system and, while they need to be addressed, they are isolated incidents that fail to paint the complete picture.
The effect the completed CRC project would have on tourism has yet to be studied. Wylie and Moeller believe that the finished bridge and light rail can only lead to an improvement in tourism to Washington state.
“More cars, more freight and a greater ability to handle tourists,” said Moeller.
“Having a robust transportation system is going to be a plus with tourism,” Wylie predicted.
Nevertheless, Rivers is hesitant to believe that this project will not adversely affect tourism to Washington and its economy.
“For those 65,000 people going across the bridge every day to get to work, who are spending their money on tolls, what are they not spending their money on in the community? Are they not buying pizzas, are they not buying coffee, are they not shopping for clothing as much?” she wondered.
The proposed bridge’s structure height is another contentious issue. The height of the bridge must be above 95 feet to meet U.S. Coast Guard standards. However, Rivers says that knowing this, the CRC still submitted a design that was only 92 feet in height.
She said the design flaw was similar to a contractor building with six-foot high ceilings after a very tall client asked for greater height. “I’d say: Take it back and fix it at your expense.’ And yet it’s perfectly okay with our people that they’ve given us a design for 92 feet, knowing since 2005 that the Coast Guard would never accept that,” she said.
There are other auxiliary issues that may need attention in order for transitions to and from I-5 to be safer and more efficient for commuters.
Dealing with the bottleneck at the Rose Quarter and straightening out some of the approaches on the Washington side are some matters Moeller would like to address.
There has also been disagreement when it comes to the opportunities for public input on the project. The CRC stated that since October 2005 committee staff has made more than 27,000 public contacts during the course of about 900 events.
Rivers, who passed an amendment last session to create the CRC Oversight Subcommittee in order to create additional chances for citizens to comment on the project, is disappointed with the CRC’s efforts to involve the public.
She said, “Some citizens were coming to me with great ideas and information but I never heard anything about them from either the CRC or the Department of Transportation, ODOT or WSDOT, and it seemed to me that they were ideas that merited discussion. So, you can imagine my disappointment when we allotted some 20 or 24 hours of testimony to the agencies – C-Tran, ODOT, WSDOT and CRC – we gave less than an hour to the citizens.”
Moeller, on the other hand, found the committee’s attempts to incorporate public opinion to be commendable. “I think it can be used as a model for public engagement,” he said.
According to the CRC Oversight Subcommittee’s project timeline, construction is to begin late in 2014.
“This is as important, if not more important than any other project in the state,” Wylie said.
Hesitant to proceed with the project when only 3 percent of the total CRC budget has been secured, Rivers said, “It’s not that I’m just a naysayer or a no. We must move forward prudently. The taxpayers don’t have a never-ending, bottomless pocket. And it’s time for us to recognize that.”
SB 5090 is assigned to the Senate Transportation Committee. No hearing date has yet been set.