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Legislators discuss CRC, don't take stand

A special Oregon legislative committee took testimony on how the state could lead the Columbia River Crossing project on Tuesday.

Joint Interim Committee on Interstate-5 Bridge Replacement adjourned after more than four hours of testimony from expert witnesses without taking a stand on whether to proceed with the controversial 2.8 billion project. That decision will be made by the 2014 Oregon Legislature that convenes for a 35-day session on Feb. 3.

Committee members peppered the witnesses with questions about the legal authority and financial viability of the project. Project executive director Kris Strickland said it would involve Oregon taking responsibility for raising approximately $1.4 billion though tolls imposed on the replacement I-5 bridge.

The state would also have to keep its $450 million commitment to rebuild the Hayden Island and Marine Drive interchanges, and to accept $850 million in funds from the Federal Transit Administration for a new light rail line on the bridge between Portland and Vancouver.

Numerous agreements still need to be completed between the state and project partners, including Washington, for all that happen, Strickland said. Among other things, Washington would have to help Oregon collect tolls from Washington drivers, even though it would not fund any of the project.

The committee also heard testimony about an investment grade analysis that found a base $2.50 toll for cars and $10 for trucks imposed in September 2015 would generate enough money to pay for the bonds, even though they will divert some drivers to I-205. The new bridge would not open for another eight years.

An Oregon Treasury Office spokesman said projections show there will be enough traffic over the bridge to finance the bonds, provided the state can collect them.

Some members of the committee expressed concerns about whether all the agreements can be completed and if Oregon would be responsible for any cost overruns.

Strickland said the Oregon Department of Transportation would take steps to mitigate such risks, includng contracting with third parties that would assume such liabilities.

The Columbia River Crossing originally proposed to replace the I-5 bride bridge between Portland and Vancouver and modify nearby freeway interchanges in both states. The 2013 Oregon Legislature approved $450 million in state bonds for the project, but the Washington Legislature refused to authorize its share. The source of Oregon's bond financing has not yet been identified.

Since then, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber directed the Oregon Department of Transportation could build a smaller version of the project that does not include freeway interchange improvements in Washington.

The current version of the project is estimated at around $2.8 billion. The Federal Transit Administration has already approved $850 million for a new light rail line between Portland and Vancouver as part of the project. The Legislature would need to reauthorize the $450 million, and State Treasurer would have to issue state bonds to be repaid by the tolls.

The project is strongly supported by many businesses and contraction unions who say it is needed to create jobs and reduce congestion. It is opposed by community activists and environmentalists who say it will increase pollution and sprawl.

Many questions remain to be answered, including whether the proposed tolls will divert commuters to I-205. The recently released investment-grade analysis said that would happen, at least in the short run, but that the remaining I-5 drivers would still generate enough toll revenue to finance the bonds.

Only invited witnesses will be allowed to testify at Tuesday's hearing.

The committee is co-chaired by state Sen. Lee Beyer and state Rep. Tobias Read. The co-vice chairs ares state Sen. Bruce Starr, state Rep. Cliff Bentz and state Rep. Chris Gorsek. The remaing state senators are Chris Edwards, Fred Girod, Bill Hansell, Betsy Johnson, Tim Knopp, Rod Monroe, Chip Shields, Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, Chuck Thomsen, and Jackie Winters. The remaining state representatives are Vicki Berger, Kevin Cameron, John Davis, Margaret Doherty, John Lively, Caddy McKeown, Nancy Nathanson, Julie Parrish, and Greg Smith.