Thanks to a nearly six-week Republican walkout in the Oregon Senate that just ended last week, state legislators lost a lot of time they could've used to hash out bills. With the legislative session set to adjourn June 25, elected officials in Salem are now scrambling to pass important bills so they can get signed into law before time runs out.

One piece of legislation set to advance tomorrow, House Bill 5005, establishes the amount of money the state will issue in general obligation bonds during the 2023-2025 biennium. Projects outlined for general obligation bond funding in HB 5005 include higher education programs, and affordable housing development. But on Monday, state legislative watchdogs sounded alarms about a last-minute amendment to the bill they say would essentially provide a blank check for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBR) and its plan to expand the I-5 freeway between Portland and Vancouver.

The amendment, filed Monday, June 19, allocates $250 million in general obligation bonds for the I-5 bridge project in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029, for a total of $1 billion by the end of the decade. The funding would only contribute a portion of the total cost for a new bridge, which is estimated to be $7.5 billion, supplemented with funding from Washington and federal match money. IBR critics are calling on Oregonians to submit testimony rejecting the amendment and want legislators to implement guardrails on what Oregon and Washington transportation departments are allowed to spend on the bridge replacement. 

Critics worry that dedicating so much funding to expanding I-5 over the Columbia River will take away needed funding from other programs in HB 5005, such as higher education and affordable housing.

Governor Tina Kotek previously said she doesn't want to commit $1 billion in bonds for the I-5 bridge. But if the amendment successfully makes it into HB 5005, she might not have a choice but to sign the bill, which allocates necessary funding for major parts of Kotek's gubernatorial agenda. 

State Senator Lew Frederick (D-Portland) and Rep. Susan McLain (D-Hillsboro), who co-chair the Joint Transportation Committee, wrote in a June 18 Oregonian letter to the editor that they hope fellow legislators will "join us in supporting the $1 billion Oregon commitment to the bridge replacement program this year" in order to qualify for federal match funds. 

"Oregon has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize the Interstate Bridge and significantly improve our region’s economic resilience, support our climate goals and meet the needs of future generations," the letter states. "We must remain committed to seeing this critical project move to completion." 

HB 2098, a different bill that proposed borrowing $1 billion for Oregon's share of the I-5 bridge, died in the Joint Transportation Committee in May. IBR skeptics said they assumed some money would be allocated for the bridge from general bonds—but not the entire $1 billion. 

Rep. Khanh Pham (D-Portland), who serves on the Joint Transportation Committee and has called for more legislative oversight of IBR spending, told the Mercury she wants to make sure people know signing off on $1 billion from general obligation bonds for the bridge would come at a cost. 

"There are so many traffic safety projects in my district that need general obligation bond funding, including on Southeast Powell Boulevard, where at least four people have died in the last 10 months. General obligation bonds are also what we use to fund school facility improvements to remove asbestos, radon sources, mold and other hazards in our schools that pose serious health risks to our children," Pham said. "These are the very human costs when we commit the full $1 billion in general fund-supported dollars to the IBR freeway expansion without putting in fiscal guardrails. Our kids are being asked to shoulder budget cuts, but our freeway projects [are not.]"

Many IBR critics specify they actually want to see a new bridge constructed over the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver. But they want legislators to constrain their financial commitment to the project and ensure the completed product prioritizes climate and multimodal transportation options—priorities they don't believe IBR leaders currently uphold. 

No More Freeways (NMF) and the Just Crossing Alliance (JCA) are two Portland-based advocacy groups that have been outspoken against unfettered spending on a freeway expansion across the Columbia River. A NMF action alert about the amendment states their organization and JCA "believe allocating $250 million this biennium is appropriate" to "enable Oregon to apply for federal funding while ensuring future opportunities for legislative oversight and prioritizing Oregon’s ability to invest in affordable housing and education."