By Jonathan Kaminsky Associated Press
OLYMPIA — The Washington state Senate’s transportation budget proposal advanced from committee Thursday after being bottled up over disagreement on funding for the Columbia River Crossing project.
The proposed budget advanced from the Senate Transportation Committee by a unanimous vote. It is expected to come before the full Senate by the end of the week.
“I’m very happy with the compromise,” said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, a vociferous opponent of the Interstate 5 bridge project over the Columbia River as currently conceived.
The deal to advance the budget plan hinged on withholding almost all of the roughly $82 million allocated toward the bridge project until the U.S. Coast Guard decides whether to issue a key permit. That decision is expected in September.
The Coast Guard in October expressed concerns that the proposed height of the bridge was too low. The planned height has since been raised from 95 feet to 116 feet.
The budget debate runs parallel to one over a separate transportation revenue package under consideration in the House. That proposal would put $450 million toward the bridge project — the money that supporters say is necessary to keep up to $1.2 billion in federal support on track.
Oregon lawmakers in March committed $450 million toward the project, contingent on Washington state doing the same.
Benton said the Coast Guard’s decision on whether to grant the permit would not change his view that the project shouldn’t move forward in its current design.
“The project will not receive construction funding from (the Republican-dominated Senate majority) as long as light rail is attached to the project, period,” said Benton. “We will not fund Oregon’s light rail coming into Washington state.”
Under the compromise, the Senate panel also agreed to authorize an audit of how money on the bridge project has been spent. The Republican-dominated Senate majority has separately asked Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat and staunch supporter of the project, to initiative such a review.
Benton said he suspects an audit would uncover project funds having been spent improperly. He declined to expand on those allegations for fear, he said, of jeopardizing his sources.
Senate Transportation Committee co-chair Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, said she’d be happy to have a full accounting of how money has been spent on the bridge project but that she doesn’t believe it would uncover anything untoward.
“I’m hoping that we can check it out, make sure that everything’s copacetic, that everything’s cool, and then just keep on moving forward,” said Eide.