THIRTY MILLION DOLLARS in planned state funding this year for the design of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) bridge looks increasingly doubtful as legislators question Governor Ted Kulongoski's budget priorities.
Kulongoski included $30 million for the ongoing design of the CRC in his $1.1 billion proposed transportation budget last December. But the state is now facing an expected budget hole exceeding $4 billion of its $15 billion total budget thanks to the economic downturn, and the House Transportation Committee has responded by pulling money for the bridge from Kulongoski's proposed package.
Transportation Committee Chair Terry Beyer was very negative about funding for the CRC at the group's meeting last Friday afternoon, April 24. Beyer listened to testimony from Reed College student Joel Batterman, a member of the Cascade Climate Network, who urged the committee to spend more money on pedestrian/bike funding and public transit.
"Whenever we make a trip by one of these modes, more money stays in Oregon," said Batterman. "And less goes to pay for oil from places like Dubai, where they've used our gas money to build an indoor ski slope, even as our Oregon ski slope melts away."
Beyer responded: "I just want to be clear that right now in House Bill 2001 [the state's transportation funding package] and all the amendments we are looking at, there is no language in there that refers to the Columbia River Crossing at this point in time."
"The governor would like to see the money for the CRC remain," responds Kulongoski's spokeswoman, Anna Richter Taylor. "But at the same time he recognizes that the economy is very different today than when he released his budget last December."
Now Kulongoski's office has planned a press conference for Wednesday, April 29, at the Expo Center in North Portland to talk up the supposed benefits of the CRC, "including the number of jobs it is expected to create," according to a briefing put out by his office. "Your show of support is essential at this time as we navigate through upcoming state and federal budget hearings," it continues.
"This is about jobs, it's about the economy, and unblocking this economic artery," Richter Taylor says.
But state legislators say the CRC is years from beginning construction, and that in the midst of an economic downturn the state's focus needs to be on funding projects that are ready to begin construction over the summer.
"I think there's a strong desire that any money we do provide will create jobs immediately to get Oregonians back to work," says State Representative Jules Kopel Bailey, who sits on the transportation committee. "And there's certainly been some discussion about whether or not the CRC meets that criteria."
Burgeoning statewide opposition to the CRC comes just two months after Mayor Sam Adams led city council to approve a 12-lane bridge on February 25 ["Greenwashing the Columbia," News, March 5].
The bridge also faced opposition from US Representative Peter DeFazio last week, who called for its design and cost to be scaled back, and even described the CRC as an "impending disaster," in conversation with one reporter. DeFazio's opposition echoes that of Washington Congressman Brian Baird earlier in April: Baird told the Columbian newspaper that the federal government might only be able to deliver $200 million to $300 million in CRC funding—far less than the $400 million to $600 million envisioned in early CRC plans.
"Now it's not clear that federal funding will be available," says Bailey. "And so we as a legislature need to make a decision as to whether our own money is well spent in the absence of that funding."
House Bill 2001 will be voted on in the house over the next five weeks. Money for the bridge could work its way back into the state's budget elsewhere before it reaches Kulongoski's desk for signature this summer, although that's now unlikely to happen without a fight.