The Columbia River Crossing’s best bet for securing $450 million from Washington state this year advanced out of a House committee today.
That proposal, a transportation revenue package that raises taxes and fees to pay for several of Washington state’s big transportation needs, cleared the state’s House Transportation Committee on a series of party-line votes. Most Democrats on the committee voted in favor of bills providing money to the CRC, while most Republicans voted no.
Even Republicans outside of Southwest Washington spoke against the embattled project, summoning talking points often heard by CRC-critical Sens. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, and Ann Rivers, R-La Center.
“I beg this committee not to pass this bill,” Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, said before the committee considered approving tolling bonds for the CRC. “Lets get a design that actually works for this area, so we can reduce commute trip time. … Put this down. Go back to the drawing board.”
Klippert also introduced an amendment to one of the package’s bills that would require light rail users traveling over the Columbia River to pay a toll equal to the tolls paid by single-occupancy vehicle drivers.
“So few people will be using the light rail,” Klippert said. “They should be paying their fair share to pay off these bonds, just like the single-occupancy vehicles.”
CRC critic and transportation committee member Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, followed with: “I swear to God I didn’t ask him to run this amendment, but I am so proud of him for doing it. … Make light rail pay for itself.”
The amendment failed in the Democratic-majority committee after skeptics expressed concerns with the precedent it would set — would bus riders traveling over toll bridges be next?
Following the hearing, CRC supporter Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, said it appears Republicans from across the state have been swayed by the voices of the project’s opponents.
Moeller tweeted: “Looks like the Republicans not only drank the Kool-Aid but made it! Too many myths, so little time.”
Also this week, Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, has introduced companion legislation to the House’s transportation tax package. Those bills (Senate Bills 5920, 5921 and 5922) will get a public hearing before the Senate Transportation Committee 8 a.m. tomorrow.
Eide, a friend of the CRC, co-chairs the transportation committee with Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima and a CRC opponent. They each have veto power over bills in their committee.
The Senate is controlled by a coalition of 23 Republicans and two conservative Democrats. Leaders from the coalition have criticized the CRC and asked Gov. Jay Inslee to investigate those planning the project. King has questioned whether this is the right year to pass a transportation package and said he wants to put a referendum clause in it, so Washingtonians can vote on the proposal.
The 2013 Washington Legislature is set to conclude Sunday, but a special session will be required if lawmakers can’t reach a budget agreement before that deadline.
$650 million in tolling bonds
Also included in the transportation revenue package is a proposal giving Washington state the authority to issue up to $650 million in tolling bonds for the CRC. This is separate from the $450 million the state is expected to put toward the CRC; the $650 million would be repaid to the state through tolls on the bridge.
The new bridge is expected to be paid for with as much as $1.3 billion in tolls. The $650 million represents Washington’s half of those tolling bonds; Oregon is expected to issue the rest. CRC planners are trying to secure a federal loan that would take the place of those state tolling bonds.
The proposal to issue those $650 million in tolling bonds for the CRC passed also moved out of the committee today.