Oregon-led bridge project could work, state official says

OLYMPIA — Washington’s attorney general has green-lit a bridge built by Oregon that crosses the Columbia River, another step in a proposed substitute for the failed Columbia River Crossing.

In a letter issued Thursday to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, an aide to Attorney General Bob Ferguson says there are no legal barriers to the proposed bridge, which would cost $2.6 billion and carry no financial backing from Washington state, the Oregonian reported.

“We see no fatal flaws that would preclude Oregon’s lead on the project,” states the Sept. 19 letter, written by Senior Assistant Attorney General Bryce Brown.

The Oregon Department of Justice has said no legal barriers would block the project.

Washington lawmakers rejected their end of a two-state financial arrangement earlier this year, but Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber called for Oregon to use federal transportation dollars and tolls to compensate.

The letter goes on to say Washington can contract with Portland transit agency Tri-Met for construction of light rail service, and that Oregon is free to collect all tolls from drivers going either way across the bridge.

“These are good signs of progress,” Kitzhaber’s spokesman Tim Raphael said.

A critic of the project, Washington state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, called the aide’s letter “ridiculous” and called the bridge “a pipe dream.” Republicans, including Benton, opposed light rail as a needless expense that would unfairly burden southwest Washington residents with a bill they loudly opposed and didn’t want to pay.

“It is completely ridiculous to think that another state can force light rail to come across their state border,” Benton said. “There’s such a thing as state sovereignty, and we will fight to protect it to the last dollar in our treasury.”

Born in 1999 of discussions among transportation committees in Oregon and Washington, plans for the project ran up a $171 million bill by April 2013, according to the project’s public financial documents, before it was shut down this summer.

The project was beset by a laundry list of concerns that included cost, pollution, aviation, security, geology, architecture and the political viability of raising tolls to pay off the bridge.

Led by Kitzhaber, supporters argued the project is critical to keeping commercial traffic moving on Interstate 5, and would provide thousands of temporary construction jobs.

Critics argue that forecasts of tolls and traffic on the bridge are wrongly based on outdated projections rooted in pre-Great Recession estimates of gasoline costs and driver habits.

The original pitch was this: The bridge needed to be expanded in order to meet the traffic needs of the nation’s 23rd-largest metropolitan area. The rates of trucks carrying freight and rush-hour bottlenecks were picking up along Interstate 5, which serves as the primary link between Seattle and the rest of the West Coast.

But those estimates were disputed, and more recent analysis of transportation data seems to contradict the idea of a growing number of drivers and trucks.

Kitzhaber has said he wants to hold a special legislative session to approve the bridge. So far, no such session is in the works. The Legislature is meeting Sept. 30 for a special session to consider changes to the Public Employees Retirement System and parts of the state tax code.

To date, the new bridge has not been added to the agenda.

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