Election Results May Mean Major Recalibration of Washington-Oregon I-5 Bridge Megaproject

The I-5 south-bound bridge was built in 1917, & the northbound bridge was built in 1958.

The November election dealt a major step backward to the current plan for the I-5 Columbia River Crossing Bridge project. Some will cheer, others will jeer.

But to date the CRC project has been like Muhammad Ali: it takes punch after punch and keeps moving forward. Here are four punches the project took on November 6, 2012.

First, voters in Clark County (the Washington state side of the bridge) rejected by 56% a 1/10th sales tax increase to operate light rail on the proposed new bridge. The November 6 outcome was never in doubt as few groups supported the measure. In fact, some community leaders and major business interests (including the local Chamber of Commerce) who support light rail on the bridge opposed the ballot measure.

The only surprise was, perhaps, the “no” percentage being only 56%.  That percentage was smaller compared to the 70% who voted in favor of a measure requiring 2/3 of the legislature to approve future state tax and fee increases. Then again, the transit measure over-performed compared to the Republican gubernatorial candidate who received 53% of the vote. The comparisons are not exactly apples-to-apples but are nonetheless interesting.

Although both states (and the feds) have formally accepted light rail in the proposed bridge, and the ballot measure was limited to funding the light rail operations, the measure was promoted successfully by CRC critics as a way to express an opinion about the project and, more specifically, light rail and bridge tolling.

Light rail supporters intend to regroup and seek other funding mechanisms, ranging from a transit fare increase, a car rental tax, a local employer tax, vehicle license fee increases, or a combination thereof.

Second, on election day the three-member Clark County Commission flipped to a 2-1 anti-CRC project majority from the previous 2-1 pro-CRC majority.  Incumbent Commissioner and CRC supporter Marc Boldt (R) lost convincingly (53.3 – 44.5) to David Madore (R), a long-time vocal activist who opposes the  CRC light rail and tolling. Incumbent Commissioner and CRC opponent Tom Mielke was reelected with 51.7 % despite being outspent roughly 8-1 by his Democratic opponent.  Incumbent Commissioner Steve Stuart (D), the lone “semi-supporter” of CRC, was not up for reelection.

The two members can influence the County’s position on the CRC project, as well as the transit agency’s position as all three Commissioner also sit on the transit agency board.

It should be noted, however, that Oregon election outcomes generally favored pro-CRC candidates.

The third and perhaps strongest punch: an official call from Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler (R) and local Republican elected officials to scrap the current design. Citing the transit sales tax ballot measure defeat and other project challenges, the group contends the project is impossible to permit and essentially doomed.  Herrera Beutler is often misquoted or mischaracterized as opposing the CRC project, and/or opposing including transit in the project.  Last week, in her clearest statement yet, the Congresswoman explained her position:

“The CRC project has not stopped, but it’s stuck in the mud, and there are two reasons. The first reason has to do with the fact that right now the bridge is too low, and as it stands, it can’t get permitted by the Coast Guard or the Army Corps.

The second issue is that the voters in Clark County just said that they don’t like the transit portion of the CRC enough to pay for it. (If the project’s environmental impact statement has to be reopened to address the bridge height, then) it seems like a good opportunity to also say, well, let’s take into account what the Clark County citizens want. Now’s the time to make the CRC into something that meets our needs.

I’m in pushing for a transit option that people here want, and they’ve said it’s not light rail. I think we can have a bridge, and we can get federal money for transit, and federal money for highways. But you know what? People are going to have to change their mind a little bit on what they thought they were going to get. And who knows, I might have to push a little harder,” (Herrera Beutler setting sights on second term, The Columbian).

And Herrera Beutler is now better positioned to possibly push a little harder.  She’ll join the House Appropriations Committee in 2013. From there, she could attempt to include language that places restrictions on how future federal funds are used in the project.

Fourth, prospects for a Washington state transportation funding bill in 2013 took a hit. Longtime Senate Transportation Chair Mary Margaret Haugen lost, as did the House Transportation Committee’s ranking Republican, Mike Armstrong. Both Members understood the nuances of transportation policy and funding. Their expertise could have helped fashion a funding proposal that could have convinced a few reluctant Members to support the proposal.  Armstrong was one of the few House Republicans willing to discuss the need for and benefits of a transportation investment bill.  Two other transportation committee Republican members who were likely to support a proposal also lost:  Senator Dan Swecker and Rep. Katrina Asay. It remains to be seen how supportive of transportation their replacements will be. Stakeholders are still optimistic that a transportation investment bill could pass in 2013.

All of this occurs just before what could be the project’s most critical year. In 2013 Washington and Oregon need to commit their share of the project funding, about $450 million each, in order to keep federal funds flowing and to keep the project moving forward.  The funding can be allocated over a number of years, but at this point the states need to commit the funding to the degree that satisfies USDOT.

Earlier in 2012 Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, a strong supporter of the project, indicated it is time to for Oregon to commit funding for the project, or essentially shelve the project. He is expected to announce on December 3 if he has a deal in principle with legislative leadership to move forward or not with a funding proposal. UPDATE:  Kitzhaber included CRC funding in his proposed 2013 budget. Learn more from our story.

Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night! few months (apologies to Bette Davis in the film All About Eve).