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Effort put on reviving project without funds from Washington

Can Oregon and the federal government build the Columbia River Crossing without funding from Washington state? And, can the decision be made in a special session of the Oregon Legislature by the end of next month?

That’s the idea project supporters are discussing with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. John Inslee. The discussions are happening only a few weeks after Kitzhaber declared the project dead because Republicans in the Washington House of Representatives refused to fund it.

Although the idea sounds radical, it reflects the powerful support the project has outside the Washington House. It has been declared a project of national significance by the federal government. Both houses of the 2013 Oregon Legislature overwhelmingly approved $450 million in state funds for the plan. And an Aug. 7 letter supporting the Oregon option was signed by a who’s who of business and labor leaders in both states.

The support is so strong because business leaders believe congestion created by the Interstate Bridge is a drain on the national and regional economy. And labor leaders want the estimated 25,000 jobs to be created by the project.

One supporter is Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association and a former state senator from Beaverton. He says discussions about moving forward with the project began in the days after the Washington House refused to fund it.

“The thought was, what can we do to keep the project moving? If we can’t, then everything that’s been spent on it so far has been wasted and we still

have the congestion problem,” Deckert says.

But time is rapidly running out to revive the project, he says. The Oregon Legislature’s financial commitment to the project was contingent on Washington contributing an equal amount to the project. And it ends at the end of September.

“That’s the drop-dead date,” Deckert says.

Others aren’t so sure, however. Kitzhaber’s office is studying the legal and financial questions involved with continuing the project. The governor already has discussed calling a special session of the Oregon Legislature to raise taxes and reduce Public Employee Retirement System costs, but he has not yet set a date.

The U.S. Coast Guard still has to rule on whether the 116-foot height of the replacement Interstate 5 bridge is a barrier to navigation on the Columbia River. That decision is expected by the end of September or beginning of October.

And then there’s the question of whether the federal government would help fund a “phased option” of the project, as supporters call their proposal. The version accepted by the Federal Transportation Administration stretches from Victory Boulevard in Portland to SR 500 in Vancouver. It includes a replacement I-5 bridge, a new light-rail line between Portland and Vancouver, and the reconstruction of all freeway interchanges within the project area.

The new proposal would end the project in Washington with the reconstruction of SR 14 at the northern end of the new bridge. The remaining interchanges in Washington would not be immediately rebuilt, although they could be later.

Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden hinted he might support continuing the project when he spoke to the Westside Economic Alliance on Aug. 5. After acknowledging the lack of funding from Washington state, Wyden talked about the need for the federal government to find new sources of revenue for important infrastructure projects. He mentioned the continued sale of Buy America Bonds, an idea he persuaded Congress to approve as part of the stimulus package.

Supporters say the revisions would cut the cost of the project by $650 million, dropping the overall price tag to $2.75 million. It would be funded by the $850 million already committed to the light-rail line by the Federal Transit Administration, the $450 million approved by the Oregon Legislature, and a mix of federal and toll funds. The Oregon Department of Transportation would do the majority of the work, although the Washington Department of Transportation would have to be involved on the State Route 14 reconstruction.

The original opponents of the project can be expected to fight the new proposal. They include environmentalists who fear it will increase sprawl and light-rail opponents in Clark County. They undoubtedly will fight in court any effort to continue the project.

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