Ore. lawmakers will take up Columbia bridge again

SALEM, Ore. — Oregon lawmakers peppered state officials and consultants Tuesday with questions about a proposal to replace a bridge over the Columbia River without funding from Washington state.

The project wouldn’t necessarily need approval in the Washington Legislature, though it would be helpful, Oregon Assistant Attorney General Ethan Hasenstein told lawmakers on the joint House and Senate committee created to study the proposal.

Oregon would need agreements with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s administration to acquire land and impose sanctions on Washington drivers who skip out on tolls, Hasenstein said. Oregon officials have been working with counterparts in the Washington attorney general’s office and the Department of Licensing to draft contracts, agreements and rules necessary to make it work should Oregon lawmakers choose to go forward, he said.

Several legislators were skeptical.

The Washington Legislature last year declined to approve funding for the Columbia River Bridge project, which would have replaced two aging bridges that carry I-5 across the Columbia River and extended Portland’s light-rail network into Vancouver, Wash. Project backers in Oregon are pressing the Legislature to move forward anyway.

“Given the benefits that we would receive, and given the reaction by the Washington state Legislature to turn away from the project, don’t we have the obligation to be sure we’ve exhausted all the opportunities?” Oregon Department of Transportation director Matthew Garrett said.

Several lawmakers were skeptical.

“How do you think we would feel and our constituents would feel” if Washington built a project in Oregon after the Legislature declined to support it, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, asked state transportation officials.

Debt backed by tolling revenue is slated to provide about half of the project’s $2.8 billion construction cost, and the rest would come from the federal government and bonds backed by the state of Oregon. Without Washington’s participation, Oregon would be solely responsible for cost overruns or revenue shortfalls.

Washington residents are projected to make up two-thirds of the bridge’s traffic, so the ability to collect tolls from them is essential to the project’s financing.

Hasenstein said Oregon can collect delinquent tolls using typical debt-collection tools such as lawsuits, liens and garnishments, but he acknowledged that costs may be too high in many cases. The state can hold up the vehicle registration for Oregonians who refuse to pay but has no authority to do the same to Washington residents. Oregon and Washington are working on a reciprocity agreement that would allow Washington to sanction its drivers for failing to pay Oregon tolls. Oregon already has a similar agreement to collect Washington tolls.

Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, suggested that Oregon bill the state of Washington and leave it to officials there to collect the tolls from Washington residents.

“I’d like to just send one bill,” Nathanson said.

There are multiple ways for the state to sell bonds. It could leave all the risk for toll-revenue shortfalls on bond buyers, or it could secure a lower interest rate by promising to back up any shortfall with tax dollars or highway funds.

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