Oregon’s top political leaders are, it seems, finally convinced that Washington is serious about reviving efforts to replace the aging Intestate Bridge.
On Wednesday, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney formally appointed eight state lawmakers to a new joint committee tasked with overseeing the bridge talks and working with lawmakers from the other side of the Columbia River on kickstarting that decades-old planning effort.
The bureaucratic maneuver comes some nine months after Washington legislators crossed the river to meet with their Oregon counterparts in an at-times awkward first meeting in a North Portland where lawmakers from all sides aired grievances five years after the failed Columbia River Crossing project died. The CRC failed in 2014 in Oregon, but the year before a small group of Washington lawmakers torpedoed that state’s $450 million funding commitment, essentially dooming the project.
Since that meeting, Washington committed to paying to set up a dedicated office for planning and engineering work specifically focused on the bridge project, and earmarked some $17.5 million toward preliminary designs on the project. Those efforts came in the wake of 2017 legislation signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee that set a blueprint to try and salvage past work from the CRC effort and pave a way forward.
“Washington’s emerging leadership on this issue has given us confidence they are committed to this project,” Kotek and Courtney wrote in a Wednesday letter to the committee’s co-chairs, Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, and Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield.
“Now is the time to accept Washington’s invitation to participate in a formal process to secure this critical regional corridor,” Courtney and Kotek wrote.
The legislative leaders asked that the committee contact Washington representatives “as soon as practicable” to start the planning process once again.
In an interview, Kotek said Oregon lawmakers had agreed to meet last December with Washington’s representatives, but she said that was preliminary. Oregon held its Legislative session in the interim, but said it’s now seen “significant steps” from Washington that it’s serious.
She said the joint committee members would be Oregon’s “official liaisons” to the project and they would give “oversight” on the developments.
Kotek, the North Portland Democrat, cautioned that progress would not be quick.
“It’s going to be slow,” she said. And she expressed frustration that the states are in this position in the first place. The key corridor on Interstate 5 between the two states will be hobbled in 2020 for two weeks for a $13.2 million project to replace a cracked trunnion that allows the bridge span to lift. “We’re not going to have a full bridge for two weeks,” Kotek said, while noting the states would likely have a new bridge in place by now if the past project had gone forward.
Washington transportation officials said they received “a clear emphasis” from the Legislature on “the critical need for replacement of the aging Interstate Bridge between Oregon and Washington by committing $35 million to open a project office to restart program development efforts.” As with the previous project, the two states’ transportation departments will lead the project -- and coordinate with transit agencies and Metro.
“Replacing the Interstate Bridges will require a unique level of coordination and collaboration among these eight agencies from both sides of the river,” Washington’s agency said in a statement. “Any project to replace the bridge needs to reflect regional perspectives and today’s transportation issues.”
Oregon and Washington face a September deadline to show federal officials sufficient progress has been made to revive the dormant project. If they don’t show that progress, a $140 million debt owed to the federal government for the CRC’s planning process comes due.
She said Oregon’s revived legislative committee wasn’t created because of that debt, and she referred questions about the status of efforts to quell federal concerns to the Oregon Department of Transportation.
“I think that shows good faith effort that we’re not giving up on a project,” Kotek said of the committee.
Kotek said any project would be contingent on federal funding, and there’s no transit money on the table for the project like there was with the $850 million earmarked for a new light rail line on the failed CRC proposal.
“I believe that there’s consensus that the current bridge is a safety issue that replacement is probably the best approach and that it should include multimodal options,” Kotek said, “and from my perspective there needs to be additional transit. I will not commit at this point what that transit should be.”
Kotek said the transit could be “either bus, rapid or light rail.”
“I think that’s part of the discussion that has to happen.”
She said it’s possible the committee would meet for the first time in September.
Here’s the full committee roster:
- Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro (co-chair)
- Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany
- Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay
- Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville
- Sen Lee Beyer, D-Springfield (co-chair)
- Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario
- Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland
- Sen. Denyc Boles, R-Salem