When Governor Jay Inslee appointed Lynn Peterson as the next WSDOT Director, urbanists and sustainable transportation advocates across the country cheered – and some dared to hope that WSDOT would scrap megaprojects like the Columbia River Crossing. But any WSDOT Secretary ultimately reports to the Governor, and indirectly to the legislature.
Between the two governors, Inslee has been the more vocal cheerleader for the CRC over the last year. Both on the campaign trail and in recent speeches, Governor Inslee has called for building the CRC – with light rail.
The CRC proponents say that both the Oregon and Washington legislatures have to put up $250 to $450 million this year in order to secure federal funding. Although the merit of this argument is suspect, Oregon has committed their share and now the pressure is on Washington to do its part.
To kill or change the CRC Mega-Project, we’re down to perhaps two options: (1) make sure no transportation package includes funding for the CRC, and (2) reduce the dedicated funding in the transportation budget to only the project components that make sense. More after the jump.
The first is certainly plausible, if not likely. Senator King (R-Yakima), who co-chairs the transportation committee, is deeply skeptical of the project. Sources say Clark County Republicans, led by Senator Ann Rivers (R-La Center), have locked-down their caucus members to vote against the CRC as well.
The Republicans oppose the CRC for two ideological reasons: they are against tolls and against light rail. This creates a seemingly impossible situation, as the CRC cannot be built without toll revenue, and Governor Inslee has established light rail as a condition of his support.
Clark County conservatives bolstered the momentum against the CRC with a recent spate of actions. The Clark County Board of Commissioners voted both to oppose the CRC and to defund its Columbia River Economic Development Council because of its support for the project. Eight Clark County Republicans sent a letter to the U.S. Coast Guard to consider a higher bridge clearance to allow taller boats underneath. And Congresswoman Jaime Herrera-Beutler (R- CD 3) has sent a flurry of letters to WSDOT and other agencies asking critical questions, and most recently organized a bi-partisan letter from members of Congress to the Coast Guard.
“Majority Coalition” leader Senator Rodney Tom has expressed support for increasing transportation revenue, but he will find it difficult to overcome this opposition. To retain power, he is dependent on the support of his fellow Republicans. So although he wants more revenue, it’s difficult to imagine that he’d sell-out his caucus by organizing the circumvention of Senator King and the Clark County Republicans.
So the cards may be stacked against the CRC, at least against funding it in a transportation revenue package.
And that’s why Democrats and business & labor interests may find a way to include funding for the CRC in the transportation budget.
In all likelihood, they would scrape together funding across several discretionary funds — $50 million here, $50 million there, and pretty soon they’re up to $250 million without ever setting up a formal revenue source for the project. And like the Oregon legislature, the Washington legislature would defer the decision on how to raise the remaining $200 million to a future legislative session.
This would be a financial disaster.
Floating a bond that with only half a financing plan is like cooking with only half a recipe and half the ingredients but a full obligation to serve dinner. It’s a dinner that’s bound to make everyone sick — it could damage our state’s credit, and burden toll-payers and taxpayers with filling budget gaps of revenue shortfalls and project cost overruns.
We need a better plan. If Governor Inslee really wants to make good on the CRC, then let’s focus on the project elements that are doable.
Light rail is expected to cost $856.3 million to $944.3 million. The expected revenue source for the light rail component is $850 million in federal New Starts grant support.
That’s right: we can move forward on light rail without funding any other component. That matches Governor Inslee’s values and maintains the commitment he’s made.
The rest of the project – the highway expansion and modifications to seven interchanges — is expected to cost between $2.3 billion and $2.7 billion. The expected revenue sources for the highway components are:
- $900 million to $1.3 billion from tolls
- $450 million from Washington
- $450 million from Oregon
- $400 million from federal highway grant sources.
Like the SR-520 bridge across Lake Washington, the toll collection is expected to start during construction of the CRC.
The sensible thing to do would be to only move forward on tolls, which could help smooth traffic flows throughout the day on I-5 and minimize congestion without spending billions on an unnecessary mega-highway.
However, what’s sensible is not always practical.
Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1185, passed by voters this fall and only partially overturned by the State Supreme Court, forces the Washington legislature to set all toll rates. With Republicans’ ideological opposition to tolls, it’s hard to see how a toll-only bill could get through the legislature.
One option would be to make the tolls revenue-neutral. This is an often discussed idea for carbon taxes because of its obvious political advantage.
Instead of building more highway capacity, the toll revenue could be used to reduce property taxes in Clark County and Hayden Island and reduce the local sales tax that’s currently waged for C-Tran transit. I’d prefer it go to funding light rail operations, but this could help create support.
It seems to me that even Clark County Republicans might see the advantage of a revenue-neutral toll. But under federal rules, it’s still a long shot.
Finally, we can move forward on two inexpensive infrastructure improvements to make the bridge invulnerable to earthquakes and to reduce congestion. The estimated cost for retrofitting the existing I-5 bridges to survive for the next 2,500 years (not a typo) is $193 million. And the estimated cost to eliminate 90% of the openings of the I-5 bridges by fixing the downstream BNSF rail bridge is $100 million.
If these costs are split evenly between the federal grants and state funds, and then evenly between Oregon and Washington, the Washington legislature could allocate a mere $73 million. And if we were smart, we’d use the toll revenue to cover even this cost.
Many things could happen this legislative session. The Republicans might win out and kill the CRC Mega-Project, maybe even any transportation package. Or, the Democrats might follow Oregon’s lead and scrape together $250 million from raiding other accounts, with no plan for the rest of the bill.
Or, just maybe, Governor Inslee and Secretary Peterson could get a political win and move forward with the project elements that make sense:
- light rail
- revenue neutral-variable tolling
- seismic retrofitting
- ending 90% of the bridge openings that stop traffic on I-5
We can do all this for a mere $73 million in local funding. Even Republicans ought to be able to get behind such a cost effective option.
And think about what we could do with the remaining billions of dollars for transportation needs across the state. Even if you’re a politician or business who thinks highways are all we should spend money on, you could fix our 366 structurally deficient bridges. But whatever transportation infrastructure you want to save, restore or expand, let’s not finance the current plan for the CRC highway expansion.