Despite legislative inertia, agency seeks money for light rail

by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: KYLE GREEN - TriMet is working on a funding plan to replace the aging Interstate 5 Bridge without help from Washington state.TriMet is continuing to file the required paperwork with the federal government for its share of the Columbia River Crossing, even though the Oregon Legislature still needs to commit to a state-led version of the project.

The 2013 Legislature approved $450 million in state funds for the project, on the condition that Washington pledge an equal amount to the project by Sept. 30. The 2013 Washington Legislature failed to approve the funds, however.

Although Oregon’s commitment has now expired, project supporters are pushing Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislators to renew the funding for a scaled-back project built by the Oregon Department of Transportation. It would include a replacement Interstate 5 bridge between the two states with a light-rail line. All proposed freeway interchange work would be completed in Oregon, but not in Washington, reducing the overall cost of the project from $3.5 billion to $2.75 billion.

Supporters had hoped the Legislature would take up the issue during the recent special session that raised an additional $100 million for public schools, among other things. Legislators did not want to deal with the contentious issue, however, because the “grand bargain” they eventually approved was controversial enough.

Some supporters now are urging Kitzhaber to call another special session just to fund the CRC before the start of the 2014 Oregon Legislature. Kitzhaber has not yet said he will do so, however.

“We are having discussions with legislators about another special session, but no decision has been made yet,” says Kitzhaber spokesman Tim Raphael.

Despite the legislative inaction, TriMet submitted paperwork to the Federal Transit Administration on Oct. 7 in support of its request for $850 million in New Starts funding for the light-rail line. The TriMet Board of Directors was informed of the filing at its Oct. 9 briefing.

Alan Lehto, TriMet’s director of planning and policy, told the board that TriMet also has reached agreement with

C-TRAN on how to fund the

operation of the light-rail line once it opens. The Clark County Public Transit Benefit Area Authority, commonly known as C-TRAN, provides transit service in Vancouver and Clark County.

“It’s up to the Oregon Legislature to act now,” Lehto said.

Even without legislative action, several requirements to start the project have been met in recent weeks. The requirements were spelled out by state Treasurer Ted Wheeler in a Sept. 26 letter to Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney and Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek. They include the agreement with C-Tran and the approval of a permit to build the replacement bridge by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Several other requirements have yet to be met, however.

They include approval of a $900 million loan from the Federal Highway Administration to be repaid over several decades with toll revenues generated by the project. For that to happen, Oregon must reach an agreement with Washington to collect all toll revenues and related charges from Washington drivers, the letter said.

Discussions over such an agreement currently are underway between ODOT and the Washington Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, the project continues to be opposed by an unlikely coalition of environmentalists who argue it will encourage sprawl, some Clark County residents opposed to light rail, an unknown number of commuters from both states who do not want to pay the tolls, and some fiscal conservatives who believe the scaled-back project is still too expensive.

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