PORTLAND, Ore. – Getting a new Interstate 5 bridge built across the Columbia River was an oft-repeated hope among business and political leaders Monday gathered for the annual Oregon Business Plan Leadership Summit.
At times it was almost a plea from new-bridge proponents to get the project underway, fearing a stalled state funding plan may result in the loss of federal funding for the bridge.
Chair of the Oregon Business Plan’s steering committee John Carter, of Schnitzer Steel Industries, pressed political leaders in attendance at the Oregon Convention Center to move forward on the project. In his view, completion of the bridge is one of the major keys to future economic success in Oregon – in the construction jobs it will create to build it and to ensure a major transportation route for commerce will be maintained.
And to hear the participants talk, including keynote speaker Gov. John Kitzhaber, the Columbia River Crossing issue will soon be getting the must-needed attention it deserves.
Kitzhaber said during his speech that he had met with Oregon’s bipartisan leadership team from both the House and Senate last week and "We all agreed that the I-5 bridge replacement project is a critical state project that needs to move forward," he said. "It's time to build this bridge."
His statements set the project up to be a high priority during the upcoming 2013 legislative session that is slated to officially get underway at the beginning of February.
"I emphasize that it is important to get this done by March 1 (2013) to give the Washington Legislature the time to act as well," Kitzhaber said, adding that he's spoken to outgoing Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and incoming Gov. Jay Inslee and was told they will also advance their own CRC funding plan.
The governor's budget, which he officially released last week, calls for Oregon to kick in $450 million for its share of building the bridge. In addition to Washington's share, the plan also is for the federal government to pick up a significant portion of project funding. It is projected to cost more than $3 billion for a bridge and new interchanges on both sides of the river.
The drumbeat for movement on the CRC has grown louder over the months and to listen to panelists and participants at Monday's summit, political leaders have noticed and vowed that it's time to act.
"The good news is there's increasing consensus (among lawmakers) recognizing how important the project is and that we need to go forward with it," said state Rep. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton.
Business leaders and political leaders emphasized that the bridge is not just a Portland-Metro area issue, but is necessary for the economic health of the entire state.
State Rep. Cliff Bentz, a Republican representing Eastern Oregon, specifically Ontario, said many of his constituents recognize the importance of the bridge.
"They do so, because when you’re from a small community like mine ... you only have one road home, and if the bridge is washed out, you're in real trouble," he said, alluding to the potential derailment of the region's economy if the project doesn't go forward.
The bridge has been a political flashpoint on both sides of the river. It is strongly supported by business groups - which want to speed the flow of commerce - and labor unions, whose workers would build it. Proponents say the existing bridge is too small, choking the flow of commuter and freight traffic, and would likely collapse in a large earthquake.
Critics say it's a waste of money and poorly designed. Many of them say it would fail to get the necessary permits from the U.S. Coast Guard because of a concern there wouldn’t be enough room for ships to pass beneath it.
In a joint statement two days after November's election, 10 lawmakers in southwest Washington, including U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican, raised the clearance problem as a project stumbling block, expressed concerned that citizens were left out of the process, and that citizens wouldn’t support proposed tolling "for a project that doesn't meet their needs."
Kitzhaber said the most likely source for Oregon's share of the project would be a new tax on vehicle registrations or titles. He said he'd support hiking the gas tax but didn't think it was politically feasible.
Kitzhaber also pitched his proposal to cut back on pension benefits for retired public employees in order to free up more money for education. The plan has broad support in the business community, but union officials and some of Kitzhaber's fellow Democrats are wary.
Kitzhaber spoke to House Democrats at a weekend retreat and acknowledged that there's "a lot of nervousness" about his pension agenda. Some of his other proposals should be very attractive to Democrats and to unions, Kitzhaber said, including a proposal to add funding for day care and for more than 200 new union-represented child-protection workers in the Department of Human Services.
"I don't expect them to embrace it, but I'm hoping that it won't be World War III," Kitzhaber said.
Associated Press reporter Jonathan J. Cooper contributed to this report.