Columbia River Crossing: A Bridge Too Far?

The region needs to take a closer look at the proposed $4 billion Columbia River Crossing project.  This mammoth project–which would be the largest public works project in the region’s history–would require us to go deeply into debt, tie up the region’s limited financial resources for decades, and facilitate a 40% increase in VMT and carbon emissions.

The financing needs of this project are likely to preempt funding from local, state, and federal sources that is badly needed for other regional priorities.  And there is little evidence to suggest that the bridge will achieve its primary purpose–reducing congestion on I-5–because it will simply shift the bottleneck to the Rose Quarter.

For these reasons, and many others, a growing group of citizens, community and environmental activists, are organizing an effort to take a much closer look at the CRC, and develop a climate-smart initiative, that is affordable, and which reduces–rather than increases–VMT and emissions.  We would very much like to meet with you to discuss our concerns with the CRC project, and outline our alternative.

We believe that this project represents a watershed moment for the region, and will be a critical decision that could affect our progress on transportation, livability, economic development and climate change for years to come.
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Op-Ed Column published by the Oregonian

Before building it, tell us who’ll pay for it

Joe Cortright
Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Most everyone, it seems, is in favor of a new Interstate 5 bridge. But missing from the conversation is any honest discussion of who will pay for it.

Of the estimated $4 billion price tag, exactly one-half of one percent — $20 million — has been identified. The other 99.5 percent will have to come from somewhere else — from new taxes or tolls.

So how much will these taxes and tolls be? And who will pay them? Advocates of the Columbia River Crossing have spent tens of millions of dollars on consultants, but so far have only a four-page “draft” financial plan hinting at the answers.

Funding for the bridge is imagined — and that is the correct verb at this point — to come from four sources: tolls, federal earmarks, state and regional taxes and borrowing.

Bridge users would pay a peak-hour toll of $2.50. The proponents think they can borrow a billion dollars by pledging future toll revenues.

Another $400 million to $600 million would come from federal earmarks from some future transportation bill (which Congress may begin working on in 2009). If $400 million is our share of the earmarks from this imaginary future legislation, and if we get two-thirds of one-percent of the revenue raised nationally (our share of U.S. population), Congress would have to raise the federal gas tax by a third and dedicate all the money just to earmarks for five years.

About $1.5 billion is supposed to come from undetermined “state and regional sources.” But current road tax revenues are fully tapped out. To come up with $1.5 billion, just from a gas tax levied in the metro area, would require an increase of roughly 15 cents a gallon, or an annual regional vehicle registration fee of about $70 per car.

Moreover, the estimates don’t explicitly include borrowing costs. The $4 billion construction cost will be needed up front, but the revenue (tolls, grants and taxes) will only materialize over decades. The region will have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in interest on this debt.

If just those who use the bridge were to pay for it, the toll for each car crossing the bridge would be about $7.50. So if Clark County commuters aren’t willing to pay $15 a day for a round-trip to Portland, that means they want the new bridge — but only if somebody else pays for it.

So what’s the alternative? The existing bridge, though homely, is serviceable — and paid for. We’ve invested millions in upgrading its seismic safety, and according to the project’s own estimates it could be made even safer for a fraction of the cost of a new span. A modest toll would not only finance the upgrades and reduce traffic congestion but also could provide the capital to extend transit to Vancouver.

It’s OK to favor a new bridge. But if you do, you should tell everyone — up front — who will pay for it, and how.