Fact-checking candidates on the CRC

It didn’t take long for the Columbia River Crossing to come up during Wednesday night’s gubernatorial debate — the first in recent memory to be held in Southwest Washington. The two major contenders for Washington’s top office, Republican Rob McKenna and Democrat Jay Inslee, tackled the controversial project right off the bat. But both candidates erred in the details of the $3.5 billion plan to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, extend light rail to Vancouver and rebuild several miles of the freeway.

Let’s start with the question. Here’s debate moderator Brian Wood of KATU-TV, leading off:

WOOD: “The president just put the Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia on the fast track. Proponents, especially those in the business community, say it is essential. Critics call it unnecessarily expensive, and it will quickly become congested. There are of course issues with design, issues with tolling, issues with light rail. … Do you support the CRC? Specifically where and how will you find the state funding for it?”

After an earlier coin flip, McKenna got first crack:

MCKENNA: “Look, everyone agrees that the Columbia River Crossing is too important to jeopardize. It’s a crucial corridor for regional commerce, and I would say for national commerce as well. And so it’s very, very important that we have a plan that is financially feasible as well a plan that will meet the needs for transportation in this corridor for many years to come.

“So, let’s talk about how it’s going to be paid for. Right now, the heaviest burden falls on Washington state tax payers under the plans that have been unveiled. In particular, on people who live in Clark County, over 50,000 of whom cross the bridge twice a day to commute to work. It’s about 11,000 coming up from Oregon, so clearly the burden will fall more on Washington commuters than on Oregon. Therefore, they have some very good questions that they’re asking, and I think that until those questions are answered, we need to slow down and make sure we’ve got a plan which is financial sustainable.

“One question is: why aren’t the federal government agencies involved putting more money into the basic cost of the bridge. Right now, it’s a third, a third, a third — Oregon, Washington and the federal government — not counting tolls. And we already said where most of that toll money is going to come from. So I think that the state will have to come up with a plan. I propose putting one on the ballot that’s a package that includes money for this project, but we have to have the answers to the full funding package first.”

A couple of things. First, McKenna is incorrect on his three-way cost breakdown of the project. Current plans are, in fact, banking on tolls to cover about one-third of the CRC cost, federal funding to cover another third, and the states to cover the rest. That means Washington and Oregon will have to jointly pony up one-third of the price tag, not one-third each. So far, neither has made that commitment. And McKenna is not the first to suggest that the feds should chip in more.

It’s unclear what McKenna had in mind when he proposed putting a ballot measure to voters that includes CRC funding. Such a move could, if approved, count toward Washington’s state share of the price tag. But it would take a lot of revenue to make a dent in the more than $1 billion expected to come from tolling, and that’s if Washington voters say yes. If McKenna is proposing a larger statewide transportation package — as he suggested after last night’s debate — how well it sells outside Southwest Washington would depend on what else is in it.

Inslee took the question next:

INSLEE: “Let’s just make this clear. This is not just a Southwest Washington imperative. It is not just a Washington imperative. It is a national imperative for the economic well being of this country that we in fact move forward to build this bridge. And I think the first thing that anyone aspiring to leadership needs to say is that failure is not an option in building this bridge. That means that all of us are going to have to do some hard work to reach a consensus on the financing package on how to do that. And it is hard. Building bridges are hard.

“Two principles we’ve got to follow: One, the residents of Clark County have got to have a vigorous, strong statement and way to be heard on this issue. And second, we have to look at reality. Look, reality’s tough sometimes, and here’s a reality: This bridge will not be built unless we as a community figure out how to get light rail onto this bridge. Now this is a reality. It is important for those who want to lead the state to say that. Because if we’re going to depend on these hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government, we are going to have to have leadership that will make sure that we get this light rail built. I will do that. We will have a package, and I will be working on it to fund the very significant state funding that will be involved.”

Pledging to make light rail happen isn’t going to win Inslee the favor of CRC opponents in Clark County, though they may not have supported him anyway. But is he right to say the CRC won’t be built without light rail?

In its current form, yes. Local leaders approved light rail as part of the project’s locally preferred alternative in 2008. This far along in the process, planners would have to go completely back to the drawing board to come up with a bridge replacement that doesn’t include light rail. But that doesn’t mean current plans are a slam dunk — far from it. A still-unresolved flap over the CRC’s bridge height could force a rework of the design anyway. If authorities want clearance much higher than the 110 feet CRC leaders said they could do without significant trouble, it could mean more impacts to local streets and a bigger technical challenge to get light rail up and over the river.

McKenna responded:

MCKENNA: “Light rail is an important priority for Oregon for sure. They’re the ones who are demanding it. It isn’t nearly as clear that it’s the priority of Washington commuters and taxpayers. And we’ll see what the vote is in the C-Tran voting area in November. That’s going to tell us a lot.”

McKenna is referring to this fall’s sales tax measure that would, in part, fund the operations and maintenance of light rail in Vancouver. If voters reject it, local leaders have said they’ll find another way to cover that cost.

Inslee wrapped up the exchange:

INSLEE: “Leaders sometimes have to talk about difficult issues. this is a difficult issue. We all have our favorite modes of transportation. Light rail is not universally accepted. But it is a reality of federal law that to get those hundreds of millions of dollars so we don’t have to have a higher toll in Clark County, we’ll need to find a way to have a consensus on light rail. I hope to work with everyone in this community to develop that consensus.”

Inslee is making a pretty big leap here. It’s not “federal law” that pushed the CRC plans to include light rail; it’s the availability of federal grants. CRC leaders have eyed the Federal Transit Administration’s “New Starts” grant program to pay the $850 million cost of building the light rail extension from Portland to downtown Vancouver. But light rail is only one of several transit modes that are eligible for the grant. Earlier in the process, CRC leaders looked at bus rapid transit as a possibility for the CRC. That’s now planned for Vancouver’s Fourth Plain corridor.

Inslee is also off-base to suggest that the federal money tied to light rail will lower the burden on toll-paying drivers. As noted above, planners are banking on tolls as a major revenue source for the project, even with that money. The CRC hasn’t formally secured the crucial federal money it needs to build the project. To expect more than that to lower tolls — when earlier toll revenue projections were already found to be inflated — is optimistic at best.

Furthermore, CRC leaders confirmed during the last Washington Legislative Oversight meeting that tolls are being used to secure federal funds for light rail. The New Starts grant requires a project have at least half the money the federal government is committing (in this case, the CRC is hoping for $850 million). It’s not a matching investment that will pay for light rail — the tolls are expected to back bonds on bridge construction. But nevertheless, the money must be shown to be invested in the project.

— Eric Florip

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