Pham files major amendment as politics around Interstate Bridge funding bill intensifies

Rep. Susan McLain, Co-Chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, looks toward Rep. Khanh Pham (purple jacket) during a meeting on April 13th. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The debate in Salem around a bill that seeks $1 billion for Oregon’s portion of the Interstate Bridge Replacement project was always going to be spicy. But with a major new amendment filed on Tuesday by one of the bill’s sharpest critics and activists primed to show up at its first public hearing later today, things are likely to get even spicier.

As we reported last week, House Rep Khanh Pham feels House Bill 2098 (specifically the -2 or “dash 2” amendments) is bloated. Instead of just a narrow focus on how to raise funds for the $1 billion investment in the IBR, Pham and her supporters feel the bill seeks to remove fiscal safeguards, doesn’t go far enough to protect construction workers, mandates full funding of the I-5 Rose Quarter project, and more.

Now Pham has released a significant set of amendments. Pham’s -3 amendment includes several key changes that would dramatically reshape HB 2098. The amendment was finalized and released on Tuesday, but for some reason, it was not posted to the Oregon Legislative Information System (OLIS) website until a few moments ago. Pham said her office had made several requests to leadership of the JCT to get the amendment posted and that she was “disappointed” it took so long.

Here’s what Pham’s amendment seeks to do.

It codifies a project labor agreement (PLA) she hopes will allow stronger labor standards for contracts awarded through the project. Where the -2 version (and the -4 which was also just released) of the bill was vague and general around labor agreements, Pham’s amendment says directly that, “ensuring labor peace and adequate protections for workers on the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project is in the public interest and that the state must consider the impacts and benefits that result from the project in procurement decisions.” Pham wants the megaproject to be designated a “community benefit project” which would trigger existing law around worker health and apprenticeship programs. (The debate around labor and contracting is something to watch as things move forward. Pham and her supporters want a strong PLA, but many large construction companies don’t.)

Pham also wants to add language that would make the cost cap of $6.3 billion more enforceable. To do that, she wants the project to be done in phases. “To ensure this limit is met, construction may not begin on the northernmost three interchanges and the southernmost two interchanges until the State Treasurers from both Washington and Oregon each make written findings that the bridge and transit components of the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project are substantially complete and the full project is likely to be completed within the $6.3 billion limit,” states the amendment.

The total amount of funding from the General Fund would also come way down if lawmakers adopt Pham’s amendment. Instead of making the $1 billion in revenue from the sale of general obligation bonds, Pham wants to slash that amount to just $250 million. The balance, $750 million, would come from bonds issued against the Highway Fund. This move puts Pham in line with Governor Tina Kotek who has already expressed opposition to spending so much general fund dollars on a transportation project.

Several fiscal guardrails that were in the bill that funded the precursor to this project (the Columbia River Crossing) in 2013 would also be added into the bill with Pham’s amendment. Things like approval of the project from the U.S. Coast Guard, a financing plan approved by the State Treasurer and an investment grade analysis before borrowing could begin — all of which are missing from the current bill — are in the -3.

Pham’s amendment would also make HB 2098 a “clean bill” by removing language about extraneous things like the I-5 Rose Quarter, fees for different types of vehicles and other topics not directly germane to replacing the Interstate Bridge.

Pham is not alone in wanting major changes to HB 2098. At least eight other lawmakers planned to share their concerns in testimony at the JCT meeting tonight. But the leadership of the committee says that won’t be allowed.

Reached for comment a few minutes ago, Pham said, “This is the largest infrastructure project in the state’s history. We need to have a robust dialogue — amongst both the public and legislators. I’m disappointed that a few hours before the hearing, we were told that the 8 legislators who registered to testify, including those legislators whose districts border and are directly impacted by the I-5 Bridge, will not be allowed to testify.”

The back-and-forth between Pham’s office and JCT Co-Chair House Rep. Susan McLain underscores an ongoing unease between the two lawmakers that is readily apparent at many meetings. On several occasions this session I’ve noticed Rep. McLain interject whenever Rep. Pham asks a particularly detailed or potentially uncomfortable question of ODOT staff and leadership. Often McLain will answer the question herself, in what feels like covering for ODOT leadership. It’s no mystery that these two lawmakers are vying for power and influence over transportation policy and that their positions are very far apart.

During a transportation lobby day on April 13th, Rep. Pham stood for a photo, arm-in-arm with fists thrust into the air, with 17-year-old climate activist Adah Crandall. Then a few hours later, Crandall confronted McLain in the hallway after a meeting and urged her to do more to fight climate change.

McLain is a Democrat, but she is to the right of Pham when it comes to transportation policy. This fight over HB 2098 has defined that contrast more than any other issue.

Meanwhile, No More Freeways has been working to organize support for a “right sized” bridge. So far there are 128 people who’ve shared written testimony in advance of tonight’s hearing — 6 of them are neutral, 29 support the bill, and 91 oppose it.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Aaron H
Aaron H
1 year ago

I initially read the title and misunderstood it to mean that Pham withdrew the amendment. I think perhaps a word other than “drop” should be used in this context.

dwk
dwk
1 year ago

This article was almost framed as a hit job on representative Susan McLain who is a very decent hard working well respected legislator and is not right wing by any means.
She was endorsed by the Oregon Workers Party, not exactly a conservative organization. She a solid vote for working people for jobs and healthcare with large union backing.
I think representative Pham would do better working with McLain than participating in a stunt to make her look bad….
It’s the “squad ” look in the Oregon legislature and it will be about as effective.

blumdrew
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

Okay, sure but McLain being endorsed by the Petrograd Soviet wouldn’t mean that I think it’s good that she is trying to push through legislation I think is insanely bad and wasteful.

The JCT blocking legislators (who live in the directly affected districts) is both a bad look and bad politics. I think representative McLain would do better working with Pham than participating in a stunt to make her look bad….

dwk
dwk
1 year ago
Reply to  blumdrew

Pham is not opposing the bridge! She is making amendments to the process.
McLain is no more “pushing the legislation” to build the bridge than Pham is. She is doing her job as the co-chair of the transportation committee.
I am not sure you understand what is going on?
The costs are going through the roof on this project as it is, her amendments to delay construction of parts of the project are not going to make this cheaper.

PS
PS
1 year ago

Does Pham want the bridge built? If I was going to say I wanted a bridge built, but really didn’t want a bridge built what I would do is demand a labor relations structure that undoubtedly makes the costs go higher, while also putting an arbitrary ceiling on the total cost, while creating a structure that could leave the project incomplete for an undetermined period of time if there are cost increases that are out of all participants control. Add in the “fiscal guardrails” (that would be required regardless for the federal funds and state bond financing, no?) and I don’t get the vibe she wants to see a new bridge. Or maybe this is the only portion of the government she believes should be subject to artificial austerity.

jakeco969
jakeco969
1 year ago
Reply to  PS

Or maybe she just wants her union cronies (and I actually support unions) to have a bigger slice of the pie?
The constituents are paying the costs of this project, not the politicians. I don’t think the politicians actually care how much it costs.

Rufio
Rufio
1 year ago
Reply to  PS

@ps Two things can be true at once: concern that the scope of a project is so large that the price tag is more than our state can manage AND want to create requirements that labor and community agreements are in place to take care of those most directly impacted by the bridge. I mean, I love eating lots of cupcakes. I also care about my long term health. Those two things are true and work against each other.

PS
PS
1 year ago
Reply to  Rufio

Point taken, but I don’t think the most important infrastructure connection in the state is as frivolous as cupcakes. But, her position shows that she doesn’t understand how the deal is bid or the wages they would be paid, the feds don’t just send money and say, good luck.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
1 year ago
Reply to  PS

I’d have a lot more sympathy for Pham if she admitted that she did not want the bridge built. Unfortunately, from a GHG perspective there really isn’t much fundamental difference between Pham’s multi-billion dollar bridge and McClain’s slightly larger bridge. Both cater to car culture while our house is on fire.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago

Pham also wants to add language that would make the cost cap of $6.3 billion more enforceable. To do that, she wants the project to be done in phases. “To ensure this limit is met, construction may not begin on the northernmost three interchanges and the southernmost two interchanges until the State Treasurers from both Washington and Oregon each make written findings that the bridge and transit components of the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project are substantially complete and the full project is likely to be completed within the $6.3 billion limit,” states the amendment.

I have no expertise in legislature, but this strikes me as a genius addition. This should force the consultant team to actually design within a budget instead of delivering what the client want s and providing a cost estimate (BIG difference!)

dwk
dwk
1 year ago
Reply to  maxD

How exactly does a company bid to build this project?
The main span of the bridge is going to take 3-4 years to build.
There is no way a construction company will guarantee a price to build the interchanges 4 years down the road from the initial construction.
A basic misunderstanding of the bid/construction process.

Randi J
Randi J
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

This is what happens when we elect ideologues like Pham. Not a pragmatic bone in her body.

maxD
maxD
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

They just bid the Abernethy bridge replacement, that is scheduled to take 5 years to build. ODOT received multiple bids and chose one. What is the difference?

alex
alex
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

ODOT is currently using a phased approach for the I-205 freeway widening project. Phase 1 is just the bridge and connected interchanges and phase 2 is the several miles of freeway widening. It seems pretty likely that the IBR project will use a similar phased approach, so being able to prevent later phases of the project from going forward if the project is over budget seems like a good idea. Maybe you should learn more about the bid/construction process before insulting others.

dwk
dwk
1 year ago
Reply to  alex

They are bidding the bridge phases in phases, not all at once. This is not the intent of Rep Pham.
I was in the bridge building business for 30 years, I did 90% of the construction engineering documents on the Tilikum crossing bridge so I don’t think I insulted anyone and was just posting my opinion.

Roberta
Roberta
1 year ago

Patrick Brennan is the Administrator of the JCT, he deliberately delayed this publishing and is acting as a de facto transport engineer instead of a neutral Administrator. He needs to be replaced ASAP. He was also the lead analyst for the Census redistricting the wackadoodle boundaries and we lost a US House seat. This guy is a real political player, completely argues with you in the hallway debating transport policy. When he has no formal training.

J_R
J_R
1 year ago
Reply to  Roberta

Lost a US House seat? Really? Prior to 2020 there were five Representatives for Oregon, now there are six. It makes me question your other complaints about Brennan.

Randi J
Randi J
1 year ago

Sorry but with Pham being the sponsor of this other bill in Salem I’m beginning to doubt her sanity.

https://katu.com/news/local/right-to-rest-bill-proposed-in-oregon-legislature-would-decriminalize-public-camping

Chris I
Chris I
1 year ago
Reply to  Randi J

She can be right on one thing and wrong on another. We absolutely need to kneecap ODOT on this CRC plan because the current design is incredibly wasteful and is going to obliterate Oregon’s transportation budget for decades.

dwk
dwk
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris I

How is Pham making this project cheaper? She is adding amendments to the budget process that will add to the cost.
She is not opposing the design.

Chris I
Chris I
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

We know the costs will overrun, so adding a hard cap and forcing phased construction will make the project cheaper. ODOT/WSDOT will be forced to give up several of the wasteful interchange rebuilds that they are proposing.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris I

“hard cap”

A cap that the legislature can evaporate and increase at their whim.

Seth Alford
Seth Alford
1 year ago
Reply to  Randi J

Came here to mention this. Rep. Pham’s other bill is antithetical to bicycling and walking.

She won her seat by about 67 percentage points, beating Tim Sytsma, per https://ballotpedia.org/Khanh_Pham

Assuming it’s the same Tim Sytsma, Willamette Week describes Pham’s opponent, “…Tim Sytsma, a precinct committee person who’s aligned himself with the Proud Boys faction….” per https://www.wweek.com/news/city/2021/06/02/three-emails-show-the-multnomah-county-republican-partys-descent-into-bickering-and-extremism/

If I were Rep. Pham, I might think, “I won my seat in a landslide against an easily beaten opponent, last time. I’ll do it again next time, too. Might as well push my agenda as hard as I can.”

So I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for Rep. Pham to cooperate with anyone else.

dwk
dwk
1 year ago
Reply to  Seth Alford

if she were in my district I would vote for her but a lot of what she does is just performative BS.
Her labor amendment makes no sense. This project will get built by a Mega contractor under Federal Davis Bacon rules. It’s not going to be built by some handyman down the street.
You can’t bid on a project that is not going to be built for 4 years like the interchanges as she suggests. The cost will go up, not down.
She also is NOT OPPOSING the size or scope of this project, I am not sure what the glowing article is really all about.

Randi J
Randi J
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

Do you think certain groups of people deserve the right to claim public property as their own? Pham does. I just don’t think she gets it. The bridge or life in general.

Rufio
Rufio
1 year ago
Reply to  dwk

@dwk What leads you to believe Pham “is not opposed to the design” or that “she also is NOT OPPOSING the size or cope of this project”?

Champs
Champs
1 year ago

I’m not entirely sure where freeway expansion lives on the political compass but I doubt it breaks down into an easy left/right position as written above.

On road building, you have trade unions and libertarians at odds, not just with each other, but with their default affiliations in the two party system. Besides that, right-sizing the bridge to leave ODOT with money to spend on other assets and jobs around the state? Also not terribly liberal.

After that, it’s up to the stubborn, insular and unpopular Republican Party. There still is an Oregon Way, they just have to put their horses back in the team.