Next on Oregon agenda: Columbia River bridge

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon lawmakers have barely gotten home from Salem after a legislative session on pensions and taxes, but they may be returning soon.

Proponents of building a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River are still pushing for another special session to get that project going.

Lawmakers who finished a three-day special session this week say they’ll turn their attention to the bridge next week. No session has been scheduled, and steps such as a financial analysis and contract with Washington are still to be completed.

Business and labor groups are pushing to see the bridge built, even after the Senate in Washington declined to help pay for it. Project boosters are promoting an alternate plan that wouldn’t require money from Washington and would scrap most of the interchanges planned north of the river.

By Tuesday, lawmakers should have a good reading on whether there’s a collective will to approve funding for the project, said Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association, a lobbying group that strongly backs the project.

“We’re hoping it’s there,” Deckert said. “Then it’s all facts and data and getting the public involved.”

Plans call for a new, wider bridge and interchanges leading up to it. It also would extend Portland’s light rail system into Vancouver, Wash. Original plans called for $450 million contributions from Oregon and Washington, along federal highway and transit funds and toll revenue to pay off the project.

Oregon lawmakers approved funding earlier this year, but their approval was contingent on Washington following suit by Sept. 30, which didn’t happen amid staunch opposition to light rail. A scaled-back project would stop at the State Route 14 interchange in Vancouver.

Gov. John Kitzhaber, a strong proponent of the project, has said it can’t move forward without an agreement from Washington allowing Oregon to collect all toll revenue and to manage construction north of the state line. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is supportive of the project.

“The CRC’s important to me, I think it’s important to Oregon, I want to make that happen,” Kitzhaber told reporters on Wednesday.

Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler has warned that an Oregon-only project would increase risks for his state’s taxpayers. In a letter dated Sept. 26, he said “it is premature to conclude that the project can work, financially.”

The project cleared a key hurdle last week when the U.S. Coast Guard issued a building permit. Permission from the Coast Guard had been in doubt because the new bridge would be lower than the existing one, restricting river traffic on the Columbia.

The bridge will be a tough sell to many lawmakers. Some of the Republicans who supported it are taking heat from critics of light-rail and government spending. Some environmental groups are putting pressure on Democrats to oppose a project they fear will lead to more vehicle traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.

Senate President Peter Courtney, who’s been vocal in his distaste for special sessions and his reluctance to hold one for the bridge project, said lawmakers need time to repair their relationships after a special session that taxed many relationships in the Capitol.

“I think this legislature is not ready to deal with it right now,” Courtney said after lawmakers wrapped up the session on pensions and taxes. “And I think a move right now would be catastrophic.”

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