Sen. Don Benton (R-17, Vancouver) made headlines this week when he (in his own words) “schooled” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a closed-door meeting with the Majority Coalition Caucus on the Columbia River Crossing project. The colorful adjective is just one of several from a press release issued by Benton’s office after the meeting where Benton made the case against the CRC.
Meanwhilke, in committee, Benton has floated amendments to the budget to yank – or, at the very least, delay – funding for Columbia River Crossing, a $3.4 billion megaproject with international significance. The bold moves make him our first repeat Capitol Newsmaker of the Week. [We named Sen. Benton the No. #1 newsmaker back during Week 2 when he was proposing an avalanche of legislation—Eds.]
The CRC drama boils down to than one percent of the transportation budget: The $80 million-or-so for Columbia River Crossing project planning. The project itself is controversial – supporters say the bridge is built with rotting wood that’s been in the water for nearly 100 years. They also say it’s a critical corridor for trade – not just between Oregon and Washington, but all the way from Canada to Mexico. But critics say the mega-project is expensive and won’t help with congestion. They also say the light rail, the component that will bring federal funding from LaHood, is costly and will not be effective at relieving any of the traffic. There’s also a big question as to whether the height of the bridge will block large ships from passing underneath.
The $80 million in question doesn’t come close to the $450 million needed to match Oregon’s pledge and trigger $850 million in federal dollars to build the bridge, which would replace the current 100-year-old span of I-5 connecting Portland and Vancouver. Instead, “it keeps the lights on,” says Sen. Tracey Eide (D-30, Federal Way), the transportation committee’s co-chair. She says the $80 million funds current preliminary efforts to study, plan for and design the bridge. That money has been in the transportation budget since 2005, she says.
But Benton wants some strings in place. His proposal: Make the funding contingent on Coast Guard approval of the project. If the Coast Guard says light rail under the bridge would negatively impact river freight mobility, for example, then the bridge would need to be redesigned.
“We’re turning over our decision-making authority to another body that is not responsible to the citizens of our state ... I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to govern.”—Sen. BentonBenton also wants the Legislature to have a final chance to approve the plan next session if the Coast Guard approves the permit. Without that piece, “we’re turning over our decision-making authority to another body that is not responsible to the citizens of our state, and not responsible to the citizens of our district … I don’t think that’s an appropriate way to govern.” Plus, he says, the Coast Guard wouldn’t make a decision until September, so allowing for that final legislative approval wouldn’t delay the project for an inordinate amount of time.
Benton tells PubliCola he also has concerns about the cost of the megaproject. “Seven or eight years ago, they said it would take three or four years and $50 million for planning. It’s been five-and-a-half years, we’ve spent $170 million on planning and we have no, zero, nada permits and no hope of having any for the next six or seven months,” he says.
If similar cost and time overruns plague the bridge construction, “for goodness sakes, that’s $15 billion.” He also questions the promise of federal funding, as he says none of the money has actually been committed, and he’s concerned some of the funding could be in jeopardy if Congress is deadlocked. That would leave toll payers – i.e. his constituents – on the line.
Benton tells me he has the votes for his amendment – which is exactly why he says he’s not the hold up (and demurred at being named this week's Capitol Newsmaker of the Week). “We have eight votes, they have seven. We could move that out today if she didn’t have veto power,” Benton says. “We’re operating under a unique situation here,” he says, of the Majority Coalition Caucus and the effort to craft a bipartisan agreement. From his perspective the budget isn’t blocked – but if it is blocked, he’s not to blame. “We could move that budget out today. Tracey has blocked it. I have the votes to put my amendment on.”
“We’re never going to be able to satisfy him [Benton],” she said. “We have met over 1,000 times. We have thousands of pieces of public testimony …"—Sen. EideSo, does that make Eide the real newsmaker of the week? Eide tells us she’s on board with Benton's amendment except for the provision calling for the Legislature to re-approve the project if the Coast Guard issues permits. “We don’t want to wait for another year. Of course if we do, then (opponents) will think of something else” to stall the project.
She says if that amendment sticks, she’ll veto the budget, which she has power to do as a co-chair. “We’re never going to be able to satisfy him [Benton],” she said. “We have met over 1,000 times. We have thousands of pieces of public testimony … This is something we’ve worked on with Oregon, Washington and the feds for 16 years.”
Eide also says there’s no reason to doubt federal money on a project that is of top national significance. “This is not like a little bridge in somebody’s district. This is an interstate highway. I don’t know how to make it more clear—this is a major artery for I-5,” she says. And she says the cost-sharing agreement will make it financially feasible for the state. “I don’t know anywhere in the nation where you can build a bridge like this for $450 million.”
So, it’s a standoff for now. Benton says he has the votes. Eide’s got a veto. And the House continues work on its version of the budget, along with a yet-to-be-announced transportation tax proposal that will undoubtedly spark another debate between Republicans and Democrats.
Meanwhile, a federal deadline is looming – if Washington doesn’t promise the $450 million, federal funding could be in jeopardy. “We are at a point where it is critical that we move forward on this very important project. From Vancouver, B.C. to Mexico, this bridge affects everyone that drives I-5,” Eide says.
But Benton is calling the feds’ bluff: “There’s a false sense of urgency about funding deadlines … it’s a phony deadline and [by missing it] we don’t start the process over again,” he says. Besides, he says, “a federal funding deadline passed unremarked five years ago.”
For the session's previous Capitol Newsmakers of the Week start here. Not that we're keeping score, but the tally so far is six Democrats to six Republicans. (We didn't award a Newsmaker of the Week for Week six; Week nine was a tie; and last week didn't go to either a D or an R.)