I-5 Columbia River Bridge

Washington Initiative Approval Casts Shadow on I-5 Bridge Progress

Plans to replace the I-5 Columbia River Bridge may temporarily escape the impact of Washington voter approval this week of Initiative 976 that establishes a car tab fee of $30, punching a $4 billion hole in state and local transportation budgets over the next six years. How Washington lawmakers reshuffle transportation budgets or try to fill the hole could affect bridge replacement in the future.

Plans to replace the I-5 Columbia River Bridge may temporarily escape the impact of Washington voter approval this week of Initiative 976 that establishes a car tab fee of $30, punching a $4 billion hole in state and local transportation budgets over the next six years. How Washington lawmakers reshuffle transportation budgets or try to fill the hole could affect bridge replacement in the future.

Voter approval this week of I-976 reducing Washington car tabs to $30 promoted Governor Jay Inslee to postpone all Washington Department of Transportation construction projects in the pipeline, but not started yet.

The initiative vote creates an estimated $4 billion hole over the next six years in state and local transportation budgets, casting doubt on any Washington financial participation in planning for an I-5 Columbia River Bridge replacement. A majority of Clark County voters approved the initiative.

The good news is $35 million to study a bridge replacement design was included in the legislatively approved FY 2019-2021 budget and isn’t immediately affected by the initiative or Inslee’s construction project postponement. The bad news is Washington lawmakers will need to pick up the pieces of transportation investment when they reconvene early next year by reshuffling transportation investment priorities or trying to patch the hole left by I-976.

While a final vote tally won’t be available until ballots postmarked November 5 are counted, the measure pushed by Tim Eyman is comfortably ahead and likely to pass. King County, one of only five Washington counties where a majority of voters opposed the initiative, is considering a legal challenge. The City of Seattle is also likely to pursue legal action.

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 The initiative centers on the complicated way Washington calculates vehicle registration fees. “Fees are different for every situation and are calculated many ways,” according to the Washington Department of Licensing. “Everyone starts with the basic fees of $43.25 and things like vehicle weight, location, and taxes determine your final amount.”

Eyman, a long-time anti-tax activist, said his initiative combats “dishonest vehicle taxes” and repeals “artificially inflated vehicle valuations.” “We’re already paying huge sales taxes when we buy a vehicle and huge gas taxes and tolls when we use a vehicle – we shouldn’t be forced to pay triple taxes just to own a vehicle,” Eyman wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed. He claimed state officials knew there was a problem, but they were afraid to fix it.

The campaign in opposition to I-976 stressed its negative impact on transportation projects statewide and on local transit agencies. The Washington State Office of Financial Management estimates passage of I-976 will slash $1.9 billion in state revenue over the next six years and $2.3 billion in local governments in that same period. Sound Transit predicted it would lose $7 billion in revenue between 2021 and 2041 and faces the prospect of canceling bonds based on car tab revenues.

Inslee said, “It is clear the majority of voters objected to current car tab levels. It is also clear that this vote means there will be adverse impacts on our state transportation system. Accordingly, in response to the will of the people, I have directed the Washington State Department of Transportation to postpone projects not yet underway.” 

The constitutionality of the initiative may be challenged by King County on the basis that Seattle-area voters in 2014 approved a measure that included a $60 million vehicle license fee to pay for transit service expansion and ensure “low-income transportation equity.” “The passage of I-976 underscores the ongoing need for comprehensive state tax reform, but in the short term we must clean up another mess that Tim Eyman has created for our state, our region and our economy,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.

 

Glimmer of Hope Surfaces on I-5 Bridge Project Restart

A glimmer of hope has appeared that Washington and Oregon may take the first steps to resume work on replacing I-5 Columbia River Bridge by restarting bi-state project office.

A glimmer of hope has appeared that Washington and Oregon may take the first steps to resume work on replacing I-5 Columbia River Bridge by restarting bi-state project office.

Someday, the I-5 Columbia River Bridge will be replaced. And Washington State hopes that someday is sooner rather than later.

The Washington Legislature generated some fresh enthusiasm when it included $450 million in a proposed transportation investment package to cover the state’s projected share of the cost to replace the bridge. Plus, Washington Governor Jay Inslee included $17.5 million to re-open a project office in his proposed 2019-2020 transportation budget.

The Southwest Washington legislative delegation has tried to stoke the appropriations fires and managed to make the bridge replacement that state’s number one priority in the propose transportation investment package that passed out of the Washington Senate Transportation Committee. However, with a portion of funding for such a packaged tied to creating a carbon fee in Washington, building the necessary support to pass it this year looks more like embers than sparks.

Washington looks poised to retain at least $8.5 million for a project office. While less than early-session expectations, opening a project office would begin laying the groundwork for replacing the bridge. Washington’s Department of Transportation, along with its Oregon counterpart, local cities and community partners, would start re-evaluating permits and design, develop a fresh budget and re-engage with stakeholders on both sides of the river.

Light rail, the bogeyman that helped sink a bi-state deal several years ago, remains a lightning rod. In his budget proposal, Inslee included a light rail provision, even though regional advocates encouraged calling for “mass transit“ to allow for further evaluation. Any mention of light rail has disappeared.

Meanwhile, Oregon, the putative partner in a bridge replacement deal, has been more or less quiet. There have been back-channel conversations between Olympia and Salem, but no real commitments. Majority Democrats in Salem are consumed with a cap-and-trade proposal and quest to raise $2 billion in new revenue for public education. A major transportation funding package is not anywhere near the adult table.

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek remains the most ardent advocate for replacing the bridge, which is part of her North Portland legislative district. She probably has support in the office of Oregon Governor Kate Brown and a good chunk of lawmakers. But without a strong, definitive move by Washington officials there is little reason to start beating the drums in Salem. That definitive move appears to be on the horizon.

 

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.