Inslee: WA tax plan won't fund Columbia River bridge project

Staff writerOctober 15, 2013 

The Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River connects Vancouver, Wash. and Portland, Ore. The planned Columbia River Crossing project would replace the I-5 bridge. (Associated Press)

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee says he still wants to call a special session of the Legislature to pass a transportation revenue package this November, but he’s no longer seeking funding for a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River as part of the deal.

Inslee said Tuesday that he won’t try to include the Columbia River Crossing in a tax plan to fund statewide road improvements, and would be content having Oregon take the lead on replacing the connection between Vancouver, Wash., and Portland, Ore.

The replacement Columbia River bridge was a hurdle to the Legislature passing a roads package earlier this year, when the conservative state Senate majority opposed spending $450 million to match Oregon’s contribution to the project.

This week, The Oregonian reported that Oregon officials may convene a special session to try and fund the bridge on their own using a combination of state and federal funds.

Inslee said Tuesday that by Washington choosing to not fund half of the bridge project, “we’ve removed an excuse” to not come up with a broader transportation package.

“As an excuse for inaction …. it can’t be used any more,” Inslee said Tuesday.

But Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, a Medina Democrat who leads a coalition of mostly Republicans, said the Columbia River Crossing could still hold up a vote on a transportation package even if it is not explicitly included in a tax proposal.

Tom said members of his caucus oppose letting Oregon officials set toll rates on the bridge, as well as allowing another state to build light rail on Washington’s side of the river.

“Why would we cede control to Oregon, when its our citizens who (make up) the vast majority of traffic going between Washington and Oregon?” Tom asked Tuesday. “Does (Inslee) want to give up his governorship?”

Inslee said he wouldn’t call lawmakers back to Olympia in November unless he was confident a deal was at hand. Legislative leaders will be meeting in Olympia Oct. 29 to see if they can agree on a plan, Inslee said.

“We will need to see very serious baking in that cake before we call a special session,” Inslee said.

State Sen. Curtis King, a Yakima Republican who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, said Senate Republicans are still looking for a bridge design that excludes light rail, which he said would cost too much for local transportation agencies to operate.

King said he would prefer an approach of, “let’s build a bridge without light rail and lets do it together with Oregon, and let’s get it done.” King said the coalition will also push for reform measures such as shortening the permitting process for state road projects and and eliminating state sales taxes on state road work.

“Then we can move forward,” King said Tuesday.

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Inslee, said even if if the Oregon-led bridge project proceeds, the Washington State Transportation Commission -- which sets tolls on Washington state highways -- would have input on toll rates.

“They will be part of that conversation and there is a way for us to provide some feedback,” Smith said Tuesday.

Inslee said he wants a transportation package pay for extending State Route 167 and improving Interstate 5 near Joint Base Lewis-McChord, among other projects.

He said he would like to include options for cities and counties to increase fees locally to fund public transit, but acknowledged that such a plan could be a difficult sell in the state Senate.

The state House passed a $10 billion transportation funding package earlier this year that would have increased the state gas tax by 10.5 cents, but the state Senate didn’t vote on the measure before a second special session of the Legislature adjourned June 29.

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