Legislative committee votes to move forward on CRC project

CRC hearing in Salem-6
Committee Co-Chair Tobias Read listens to testimony.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Columbia River Crossing project took a step forward in Salem on Monday. After hearing nearly four hours of testimony for the second week in a row, a joint legislative committee voted 14-2 (see votes below) in favor of HB 2800 — a bill that “declares that it is in the state’s interest” to undertake the project.

While an opposition rallied against the bill, it was pushed through so quickly and decisively by the legislative power structure that those against it never really had a chance. In today’s marathon hearing, numerous labor union reps and business interest groups lined up to testify in support of the bill and the project. There were many of smiles and handshakes inside and outside the hearing room before the hearing even began. It was clear many of the movers and shakers had already counted votes and the public testimony would be a mere formality.

Director of ODOT Matt Garrett (L) shakes hands with Port of Portland Executive Director Bill Wyatt prior to the hearing.

These trades workers were brought in to “put a face on the jobs” the project is promising to create.

Metro President Tom Hughes showed up with a “Build that Bridge” pin and went on to share with the committee that the CRC is a “vital project for the Portland metro area.” The Executive Director of the Port of Portland Bill Wyatt rattled off a list of major companies that do shipping through properties owned by the Port that are adjacent to the Columbia River. “Subaru, Nike, Intel…” The General Manager of Fred Meyer and QFC stores testified that the trucks that serve his stores sometimes get caught in I-5 traffic on their way north.

It was hammered home by a litany of professional representatives of companies and labor and business organizations that a wider freeway and a newer, bigger bridge is imperative because I-5 is the “lifeblood of the economy,” that it’s “essential to freight movement,” the “key to job production” and so on.

And, while their talking points weren’t nearly as concise and organized, there were many more people who spoke out against the project. One source we spoke to counted 19 people in favor of the CRC and 32 people who testified against it. While nearly all of those in favor represented large companies, unions, or other organizations, many who showed up to testify against the project were private citizens who lived in the areas that will be most impacted if it ever gets built.

Northeast Portland resident Evan Ross said he’s concerned about air quality in neighborhoods near the freeway project. “I urge you to listen to your constituents, not special interests that are pushing this project,” he said. One woman, who introduced herself as a mom and homeowner in northeast Portland urged lawmakers to consider how we’ll be moving ourselves around in the future. “In the next 50 years, single-occupancy vehicles is not what we’ll be wanting to invest in.”

Ryan Howard, a Newberg City Council member, said the design of the project will only, “Fuel our auto-addiction.” Speaking for the emerging low/no-car constituency, Howard asked, “Who are we building this for?” “If you’re building it for my generation,” he continued, “You should know that we’re committed to not needing it.”

Many others who testified against the project pointed out how it will eat up funding for other important projects around the state. Portland resident Carl Larson pointed out the ubiquitous “Build the Bridge” buttons and stickers in the room: “We should be building many bridges,” he said, “Not just this one. If we don’t build this one, there are a lot of other roads and bridges we can build.”

And then there was self-described “recovering politician” Jefferson Smith. The former state rep and Portland mayoral candidate said he’s concerned that this bill is “committing to the dough before getting the dough.”

Jefferson Smith
Senators and Committee Co-Chairs Bruce Starr (L) and Lee Beyer.
Sandra McDonough, President & CEO of the Portland Business Alliance

And the “dough” in this case is a $450 million commitment to the project from the state of Oregon. If a series of conditions are reached (a Coast Guard permit, a commitment of an equal amount from Washington, and so on) than the bill that passed Monday allows Oregon to issue bonds to come up with the $450 million.

The debt service on those bonds would equal $27 million per year for 30 years. For the next two years, ODOT will repay those bonds from their state transportation improvement program (STIP) “Enhance” funds. While House Speaker Tina Kotek (and others) have tried to say they can use these funds “without significantly impacting the state’s other transportation priorities,” that’s simply not the case. Many Oregon communities rely on STIP Enhance funds for local projects.

After raiding STIP for the next two years, legislators are hoping they’ll have a new revenue stream to pull from beginning in 2016 (easier said than done)

Once committee co-chair Cliff Bentz (also the bill’s co-sponsor) and other members of the committee asked an ODOT panel a series of financial and other technical questions, it was time for the vote.

In the end, only two members of the committee voted against the bill: Senators Chuck Thomsen (R-Hood River), and Fred Girod (R-Stayton). Girod said he thinks the project puts many rural Oregon projects at risk. He also wanted more oversight of the bill in the Ways and Means Committee.

Senator Lee Beyer (D-Springfield) said, “I think this project is probably the most looked-at project in the history of the state. I think if we step out of line [for funding], we won’t get back in line for another decade or two. This is the time to build the bridge.”

Hillsboro Republican Bruce Starr said the bill demonstrates, “The art of the possible,” and that “it ain’t perfect by anybody’s stretch,” but he supports it for the “long-term economic health of Oregon.”

Rep. John Davis (R-Wilsonville) also struck a chord of urgency and wanting to simply be done with this debate. “To the public for the last 18 years that this has been an official state project, your voices have been heard. None of you got everything you wanted… but I would ask that after 1,000 public meetings, how many more design alternatives should we consider?… The easy vote would be to send this back to another study group. We all ran on a platform of getting stuff done.”

From here, the bill will go straight to votes on the House and Senate floors. Stay tuned.

Here are the votes for HB 2800 in the Joint Committee on Interstate-5 Replacement Project:

More coverage of the hearing and vote:
Willamette Week
The Oregonian

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