Columbia River Crossing

Vancouver Acts to Relaunch Effort to Replace I-5 Bridge

Untimely bridge lifts delay and irritate motorists and freight haulers crossing the Columbia River on I-5. The City of Vancouver has stepped forward with a resolution seeking to restart a conversation to replace the bridge.

Untimely bridge lifts delay and irritate motorists and freight haulers crossing the Columbia River on I-5. The City of Vancouver has stepped forward with a resolution seeking to restart a conversation to replace the bridge.

Traffic and backups on I-5 haven’t abated and untimely Columbia River bridge lifts continue to slow and frustrate commuters, shippers and motorists just trying to get through. An effort to resume discussions of a new bridge is beginning to take shape.

The Vancouver City Council voted unanimously this week in support of replacing the I-5 Columbia River bridge. The Council resolution also asked Governor Jay Inslee to “provide adequate funding” for the Washington Department of Transportation to relaunch the process that came to a sudden stop in 2015 after Washington lawmakers refused to commit their share of costs and Oregon officials pulled the plug.

Other Southwest Washington municipalities may follow suit, with the goal of creating momentum that brings – or drags – Oregon policymakers back to the table.

That may be more complicated as Oregon transportation officials are finishing up recommendations to toll some or all of I-5 and I-205. The purpose of the tolling is to reduce congestion. Revenue raised from tolls would go to Oregon roadway investments, not a new I-5 Columbia River bridge.

Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has threatened to block Oregon Interstate highway tolls because of what she views as their disproportionate impact on her constituents.

If bridge talks do restart, the extension of light rail to Vancouver may remain a sticking point. Attitudes north of the river may have changed, but a transit component may be a precondition for Oregon officials to re-engage.

The Vancouver resolution addresses this challenge by seeking a bridge replacement that includes “high capacity transit with a dedicated guideway.” This language would allow for either light rail or bus rapid transit on a new bridge, and presumably would provide some breathing room for future debate on both options. Bus rapid transit has been embraced as a more affordable alternative in some areas in Clark County outside of Vancouver.

The timing of renewed discussion also presents challenges. Oregon lawmakers passed a major transportation and transit measure in the 2017 legislative session. It contained no provisions relating to a replacement I-5 Columbia River bridge,  but did create a panel to review mega projects in the state moving forward. Based on past experience, another major transportation funding proposal would be difficult unless party leaders put their full weight behind a new bridge project. Veteran legislative leaders such as Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek may see this as an opening on a legacy project.

One of the failings of the Columbia River Crossing effort was its single focus on a new bridge and related highway improvements. In reality, Portland-area and Southwest Washington residents and businesses have broader transportation interests in common as population growth and business expansion continues on both sides of the river.

Vancouver officials have signaled a willingness to pursue some kind of bi-state partnership to identify common ground, regional transportation objectives and a strategy to find a bridge solution.

Collaboration has occurred at the ODOT-WSDOT level and there have been coalitions in both states supporting a new bridge, but elected officials haven’t driven the strategy or policy decisions.


Legislature Ends Short Session of Modest Accomplishments

The 2014 “short” legislative session came to an orderly end Friday. At 33 days, the session nearly bumped up against the constitutional limit of 35 days for short sessions held in even-numbered years. The session will be remembered for modest achievements and a budget rebalance.

At the beginning of February, there were a number of big policy issues in play. Liquor privatization and marijuana legalization legislative referrals, gun control legislation and the Columbia River Crossing were high on the “to-do” list for legislative leaders. None of those issues passed the legislature.

The legislature also passed on issues that grew heat towards the end of the session: changes to class-action lawsuits to fund legal aid, modifying the ballot title for a driver’s license referendum and a bill to change the investment division of the State Treasurer.

There were some significant actions. The legislature authorized $198 million in bonds for the OHSU Knight Cancer Challenge, but only if OHSU raises the other $800 million first. A land-use “grand bargain” passed that codifies an out-of-court agreement among parties in Washington County. The legislature managed to find a way to tax pre-paid cell phones for 911 services.  And, most important, the legislature rebalanced the budget and found a way to fund a few new initiatives.

The Weed, Guns and Booze Session

Legislator e-letters to constituents are signaling the 2014 session will take up legislation relating to gun control, pot legalization and liquor privatization. Those issues may make the headlines, but the real work of the session is to refine biennial budgets — yet again, with fewer resources than budget writers expected at the end of the last session. 

The arcane process of state budgeting is hardly the stuff of eye catching headlines — in the paper or in constituent newsletters. Still, it’s true that even-year legislative sessions have inescapably become the second-chance opportunity for legislation that didn’t quite make it through the hoops at the longer, odd-year regular session. It also becomes the last chance to do something legislatively before a major issue shows up on a November general election ballot. And the short session offers an opportunity to pass a bill on a topic that has captured the moment.

Gun background check legislation falls into the second-chance category, while pot legalization and liquor privatization belong to the last-chance category. Faced with the prospect of potentially popular initiatives, lawmakers are considering pot and liquor bills that offer an alternative.

Catch-up legislation to the Cover Oregon website debacle heads the opportunity category.

The Columbia River Crossing commands its own special category — the last-ditch, Hail Mary category. After the Washington legislature failed to approve funding for an I-5 bridge replacement at its regular session last year and is unlikely to do so in its session currently underway in Olympia, Oregon is left with a choice of whether or not to step out on its own. Opponents have stoked fears of the risk to Oregon taxpayers and those trepidations seem to be hitting the nerve in a number of former legislative supporters, including Senate President Peter Courtney. One Capitol wag said the project isn't dead, but is a "walking zombie."

Political Pot Continues to Boil

The September 15 deadline is creeping up for Governor Kitzhaber to decide whether to move forward with a legislative special session to consider further cuts to public employee pensions, business tax cuts and an Oregon-led approach to building a replacement I-5 Columbia River bridge.

The path to all three is littered with political obstacles. One thing is clear, however. If there is a special session, it will be by September 30, the date that Oregon's offer expires to share the state costs on the bridge with Washington.

The Kitzhaber camp isn't saying whether he has lined up the votes for the grand bargain or bridge funding. The pieces may not fall into place – or fall apart – until Treasurer Ted Wheeler releases his financial analysis of the risks involved in Oregon leading the way on replacing the Columbia River bridge. When the Oregon-in-the-lead strategy was unveiled last month, Wheeler questioned whether there was enough time for an analysis before a special session would be called. Now he has until September 15.

Bridge financing is not a new subject for Wheeler, the former Multnomah County chair who pieced together the bucks to replace the aging Sellwood Bridge, which is now under construction. But the timing of the Columbia River bridge financial analysis couldn't have occurred at a stickier time for Wheeler, who might be the odds-on favorite to succeed Kitzhaber as governor if he decides not to seek re-election.

As it turns out, Kitzhaber is fundraising, presumably for his yet-to-be-announced 2014 gubernatorial re-election campaign. The three-term governor also showed his political flag at a Labor Day union function, declaring firm opposition to an initiative that would ban mandatory payments by public employees to public unions. The Oregonian speculated his comments – which caused Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain to quip: 'Damn, Governor, you sounded like the president of the AFL-CIO" – were aimed at politically defusing political opposition caused by his continued support for deeper cuts in public employee pensions.

Middle Ground in 'Grand Bargain' Debate

Politics versus policy.

That age-old debate surfaced again earlier this month concerning the motivations of Democrats and Republicans as they assess  the so-called "Grand Bargain" pushed by Governor Kitzhaber to make deeper cuts in the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) to boost school funding, while reducing some business taxes.

A proposal along those lines failed in the 2013 legislative session, but some supporters have not given up on the idea. The governor will decide by August 26 whether to call legislators back into special session to try to do what they failed to do in the regular session. The key to getting the necessary Republican votes in the House and Senate may revolve around some form of business tax cut.

Media coverage has suggested some Republicans who want to regain control of the House and Senate may take a pass at further PERS cuts, so they can campaign against Democrats in the next election for failing to control PERS.

Democrats appear open to supporting the Grand Bargain if it puts more money into K-12 schools and avoids teacher or school year cuts, which they view as a winning election theme in 2014. 

The political calculations over the Grand Bargain, while not surprising, do raise questions about whether there is middle ground in this debate.

In “The Mindsets of Political Compromise,” political science professors Amy Gutmann from the University of Pennsylvania and Dennis Thompson from Harvard University suggest that compromise is more difficult in the United States today because of "permanent campaigns."

"The increasing incursion of campaigning into governing in American democracy — the permanent campaign — encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult," they wrote. "The resistance to compromise is a problem for any democracy because it stands in the way of change that nearly everyone agrees is necessary, and thereby biases the political process in favor of the status quo."

Governor Rolls Out "Education Budget"

Governor Kitzhaber unveiled a budget proposal today that he called "first and foremost an education budget."  He said his budget "creates space for front-end investments in education and early learning by cutting back-end spending on health care and corrections." 

His 2013-15 budget, which was previewed by The Oregonian and Salem Statesman Journal today, puts controversial changes to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) squarely in the center of an effort to carve out more money for schools. And that could bump into political resistance from the newly Democratically controlled House.

Despite that, the atmosphere in the state Capitol was markedly different than in Washington, DC, where partisan wrangling continues over how to avoid plunging over the so-called fiscal cliff. While there is no looming fiscal cliff here, the governor's budget will only serve as the framework for the 2013 legislature to hash out a final budget with Democrats at the controls in both the House and Senate.

Senator Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, already named to be Senate co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, was charitable toward the governor, as quoted in the Salem Statesman-Journal.  "I appreciate the governor's candor about the specific challenges we face in funding education and the Oregon Health Plan in the next biennium," Devlin said.  "With his recommended budget, Governor Kitzhaber has provided a good starting point for the budget negotiations ahead of us."

New House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, praised Kitzhaber for addressing PERS, but questioned the rosiness of revenue projections and the lack of any fund reserves to cushion the budget in case the economy falters in the next two years.

The governor's plan for more money for K-12 schools rests on the premise that the legislature will accept his recommendations to reform PERS in two ways:

• By limiting cost-of-living increases to the first $24,000 in retirement income; and

• By closing a benefit loophole for out-of-state retirees. 

Huge Issues Loom in 2013 Session

The short 2012 session just ended and there are nine months until the 2013 legislature convenes, but it is still timely to look ahead at the issues that need resolution or are just ripening for action.

At the top of the list is how Governor Kitzhaber's health care transformation strategy will work and whether newly forming coordinated care organizations can squeeze out cost savings in serving Oregon's Medicaid population. The health insurance exchange will get up and running, just as the federal health care reform measure lands in the U.S. Supreme Court, which could toss some or all of the controversial reform legislation.

Despite a slow economic recovery, many parts of Oregon still feel the after-effects of recession and could benefit from state efforts to boost employment. Strong differences exist between Republicans and Democrats on how to stimulate job growth, especially in rural Oregon.

As a result of education reform measures pushed by Kitzhaber, K-12 school districts are signing achievement compacts to promote improved student learning. A question remains whether this reform will under-perform or have unintended consequences as have previous reforms such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Lawmakers in February approved a measure that deals with home foreclosures. However, consumer advocates felt it didn't go far enough, while bank and title company officials said it might not work as expected.

Kitzhaber, who will be entering the last two years of his third term, has vowed to give tax reform another shot. This has proven to be as elusive as the pot of gold under the rainbow. While a majority of Oregonians feel the state's current tax system isn't sustainable, there is no clear consensus on how to refine or replace it. A state sales tax is certain to make another stage appearance, with a few clapping and others throwing big red tomatoes. 

Local governments are pressing for expanded access to property tax revenues. They are looking for authority to exceed property tax rate limitations for voter-approved levies. The temporary state hospital tax expires and hospital interests may be less willing to go along with an extension after proceeds were diverted from their original purpose.