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CRC hearing brings arguments for and against directly to lawmakers

Posted by on February 13th, 2013 at 1:20 pm

HB 2800, a bill that would declare it’s in the state’s interest to “undertake” the Columbia River Crossing project (now referred to as “the I-5 bridge replacement project”) got a public hearing in Salem yesterday. We also heard about a new “bipartisan coalition” that has been formed in opposition to the project.

The hearing yesterday lasted well over four hours and took place in front of a 16-member Joint Committee made up of state legislators. The legislators heard testimony in support of the project from Governor Kitzhaber and heard from dozens of citizens who showed up at the Capitol to share their opinions. From reports we monitored, the crowd was very large, spilling over into two additional rooms in addition to the main hearing room.

According to people that made the trip to Salem, the vast majority of those who testified were opposed to the project (one source said it was 90% in opposition). But the project had a huge boost at the start of the hearing with Governor Kitzhaber, both Co-Chairs of the committee, the Chair of the Oregon Transportation Commisssion, and the ODOT project manager all setting the tone early on. The first two citizen speakers from Hayden Island also gave strong support for moving forward.

The main themes from these boosters of the project were timing (both for funding and to save the bridge from falling down in an earthquake) and safety. One of the committee Co-Chairs (I didn’t get the name) said after a recent meeting with federal representatives he, “Came away convinced that the money is there if we move forward quickly.” Co-Chair Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) cited the “400 accidents per year” on the bridge and said freight movement is a key concern for his district (which is 375 miles away from the project).

Then, in a strange move that seems to underscore the outdated principles this entire project is based on, ODOT showed a 2002 video explaining the need for highway expansions and a new bridge on I-5 between Oregon and Washington.

Here are a few images from a slide presentation given by ODOT to make the case for project:

Seated in front of the committee, Governor Kitzhaber also struck a sense of urgency. He said, “It is time to build a bridge” and added that the project has been “analyzed, criticized, downsized and looked at at every possible angle (critics refute that claim).” Kitzhaber told legislators that the CRC is a “construction ready project” that it’s needed to alleviate “concerns about congestion from business and community leaders” and that it will “increase mobility and the transportation of goods throughout Oregon.”

On the timing aspect, Kitzhaber made it seem like the project enjoys broad support and that all that’s missing is a funding commitment from Oregon. “We have reached a point of opportunity and some significant urgency,” he said, “We have support of everyone… If we are able to move forward by making a commitment in resources.”

“If we have as much misfortune in building this project as we have had in planning it, or if the other funding sources fall through, and the cost skyrockets, what then? What transportation projects in your districts will you be willing to cut? What programs will you be willing to cut?”
— Testimony from Peter Welte

If Oregon doesn’t move fast, Kitzhaber and others said, the feds will never fund the project. It’s now or never (which is the same thing they’ve been saying for over five years). “If we fail to act, other projects will move up in the queue.”

In his opening remarks, Oregon Transportation Commissioner Chair Pat Egan acknowledged that funding the CRC will impact other state transportation projects. “So we’re keen on finding new revenue.” He estimated the debt service would total $27 million per year on a 30-year time horizon. He said that money could be raised with a one-cent per gallon increase to the gas tax or a $5 per vehicle in registration fees.

[Lack of money to pay for Oregon’s share of the project is likely to emerge as a major sticking point. Biking and walking advocates are especially concerned because debt payments will be pulled directly from a funding source that usually goes to active transportation projects. Sources close to ODOT and PBOT say they’re worried that HB 2800 mandates that bond repayments come from state transportation funds — not the state’s general fund like a previous CRC bill called for. This means ODOT will pull from their “flexible” funds that have historically paid for biking and walking projects throughout the state (stay tuned for more on this).]

Almost immediately after opening statements, the committee began asking tough questions.

Sen. Fred Girod (R-Stayton) seemed annoyed that ODOT Director Matt Garrett wasn’t present to answer questions. He wondered, “Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul? $450 million [Oregon’s share of the project] isn’t a small amount of money.”

Rep. John Davis (R-Wilsonville) asked “Why this bridge? Why now? We have alternatives… What would happen if we just scrap this?” According to one source, that comment led to cheers in the meeting room.

Rep. Julie Parrish (R-West Linn/Tualatin) asked about cost overruns. “What if there is a cost overrun?” she wondered, “I don’t have confidence in the state… I have yet to see big projects that we get accomplished that don’t have overruns.”

The ODOT project manager had responses to these questions — repeating that they hope to find a new revenue stream in the coming years, that they vetted all the design options, and that they are confident in their cost estimates (ODOT’s Kris Strickler said they think they’ll complete it under the estimated cost).

The question is, will committee members and other legislators who will ultimately decide HB 2800’s fate like those answers enough to vote for the bill? Or will legislators take time to understand the grave concerns with this project being aired by a growing number of their constituents?

Washington County resident and board member of Bike Walk Vote Peter Welte was one of those who testified in opposition. He voiced concerns that this project would put funding for other projects at risk. He also pushed back on three common arguments for the project: saying the bridges aren’t in as bad of shape as ODOT says; that ODOT can’t pay for it; and that it won’t “fix congestion.”

Below is a particularly effective passage from Welte’s remarks:

“If we have as much misfortune in building this project — the DOTs have spent over $160 million on a jobs program for highly paid consultants, without laying a brick — as we have had in planning it, or if the other funding sources fall through, and the cost skyrockets, what then? What transportation projects in your districts will you be willing to cut? What programs will you be willing to cut?”

One issue I see emerging is that electeds feel opposition exists only on the extremes. Rep. Parrish tweeted to us that the opposition to the CRC is “fascinating” and that “folks on the far left and the far right are united.” Politically, that’s a dangerous place for the opposition to occupy.

Feeding that narrative is a new coalition in opposition to the project that was announced yesterday. This coalition of very strange bedfellows includes: John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute; Steve Cole with the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods; Karla Kay Edwards with Americans for Prosperity-Oregon; Mara Gross of the Coalition for A Livable Future, and Jason Williams with the Oregon Taxpayer Association. The new group’s number-cruncher is none other than Joe Cortright, President and Chief Economist at Impresa Consulting.

Despite reasonable concerns and seemingly obvious problems with this project, conventional wisdom seems to be that HB 2800 is headed for passage. The political power behind it is daunting (“It has been greased,” said anti-CRC activist Ron Buel during his scathing testimony that called out many of the project’s lobbyists and campaign funding ties); but popular activism against it is gaining steam. If those who oppose this project hope to have a fighting chance to stop, they need a high-profile, moderate and respected voice to emerge. Would even that be enough to stop this steamroller? Stay tuned.

This bill will get another public hearing on Monday (2/18). There’s a citizen’s group already organizing carpools if you’d like to attend.

More coverage of yesterday’s hearing via The Oregonian. You can also read a live-blog from Mismanaging Perception.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Doug Allen
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Doug Allen

Imagine if Portland Public Schools decided that they would simply sell bonds for rebuilding schools, with no new taxes to pay them back. Citizens and newspaper editors would be outraged. HB 2800 authorizes ODOT to do just that, to the tune of $450 million.

I heard Gov. Kitzhaber express regret that no taxes would be levied to pay back these bonds, but not any reservations about plunging ahead anyway.

davemess
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davemess

Were any state reps from Portland (where this may actually be built) present and/or vocal? I’m sorry, but I don’t have a lot of faith is reps. and committee members who live 375 miles away.

Gregg
Guest

Those ODOT pics are BS.

“Bus subject to congestion” – Make a 24 hour HOV lane immediately and allow Busses in it! And if ODOT is so worried about freight, allow them in it as well.

“400 crashes a year” and “Congestion” – If we increase # of lanes, we increase # of cars, and we increase crashes, and we increase congestion (Downstream in Portland)

Granpa
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Granpa

“…”It has been greased,” said anti-CRC activist…”
This damning accusation of graft and corruption should be supported by evidence. Without evidence it is just a baseless rant from the “far left” Unless you want to be dismissed as the new Tre Arrow stick to verifiable facts.

NW Biker
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NW Biker

Face it, folks: we’re doomed. We’re going to have a California style ten-lane freeway right through the center of Portland, no matter what anyone says to the contrary. Vested interests get their way, funding or no funding, and ordinary citizens who are interested in having a place to live that’s on a human scale don’t matter.

Matthew
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Matthew

This bridge is a major component of the I5 corridor uniting N and S, whatever is decided, we need to keep in mind the impacts of moving freight and people. (feel free to insert comments about NAFTA, car congestion/pollution, not enough bike/ped. infrastructure, rail development and so on…)
Oregon has a vibrant export economy, we don’t want to impede on this. We also have a marvelous sustainability culture, we don’t want to ruin this either.

Peter W
Guest

The CLF and a coalition of neighborhoods are “the far left”‘?

I always thought that Occupy and The Portland Radicle were far left, but apparently I’ve been misinformed.

Thanks for the comprehensive coverage, Jonathan. It’d be great to have you down in Salem next week!

Hart Noecker
Guest

Sharing logical talking points between the right and the left puts us in the common sense middle. Clean air and transportation funding fairness aren’t extreme ideas at all.

q`Tzal
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q`Tzal

I suggest bringing pictures of Beijing’s recent air pollution and asking:
“Is becoming a major freight and industrial hub worth this?!?”
Point to slides of impenetrable smog, all citizens wearing face masks and over crowded hospitals due to China’s single minded focus on commerce and ask again:
“Is it worth it?”

Jeff Bernards
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Jeff Bernards

Funny how Kitzhaber never voiced his support of the bridge during the election? If he had I wouldn’t have voted for him (or the other guy).

just joe
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just joe

Speaker of the House, Tina Kotek, generally a reasonable sort .. her district is North Portland, including Kenton and Hayden Island. Her advocacy has included kids and health issues. A few thousand emails, phone calls and letters reminding her of the negative impacts to her district seem in order.
Where the leadership goes, the troops follow. Best make sure she is on the right course. Previous conversations with her have been rather non-committal.

Mike Quigley
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Mike Quigley

What effect will sequester have on this project? Hopefully America’s dysfunctional Congress will lay it to rest as of March 2.

Granpa
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Granpa

Listen to you people “Phyrric strategy”, “We’re Doomed”, “Beijing’s recent air pollution” and now hoping for the sequester which would likely drop us back into recession.

Overblown hyperbole and destructive nihilism is no way to make friends or influence people.

9watts
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9watts

Marid wrote:
“Even if people drove half as much as now, in 40 years there will be twice as many people living in the area.”

You seem to ‘know’ something very specific about demographic trends, but when someone suggests the future of the automobile will not be a continuation of the past you can’t hear that, reject it out of hand. We obviously get our news from different sources, but have you noticed that the number of folks jumping on the climate change is advancing more rapidly, is probably already too far advanced to do most of the things about it we wished we had bandwagon is rapidly increasing? Every day brings new converts.