Sen. Doug Whitsett: Concerns with the CRC

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

There is little doubt that something needs to be done to improve traffic flow on Interstate 5 across the Columbia River. The current levels of traffic congestion, delays and the number of vehicle crashes are unacceptable. The questions are what should be done and how should we pay for the Columbia River Crossing.

What’s required to be done should be left up to the traffic and construction engineers. Determining where the bridge should be built, the number of lanes of traffic needed, and its height both above the water and its total elevation should be left up to the professionals to decide. What is clear is that the design is far from being completed. In fact, I have not yet been shown a detailed drawing of the project. 

HB 2800 that authorizes the construction of the Columbia River Crossing project is one of Governor Kitzhaber’s highest priorities and has now passed both the House and the Senate. A number of legislators have worked very hard to make substantial improvements in the original bill. Among those improvements are five “triggers” that discontinue funding for the project if certain performance targets are not timely met. I greatly appreciate their significant efforts.

I did not support the bill because I have several remaining concerns regarding HB 2800 including the process followed in passing the bill as well as the means of funding the project.

HB 2800 has an emergency clause. That clause explicitly prohibits the people from reviewing the work of the legislature by referring the law to a vote of the people.

Apparently, the emergency clause was needed to demonstrate to the people of Washington that Oregon is willing to take the first fiscal step. This first step is difficult to understand because the Washington legislature will adjourn long before our current Oregon legislative session will end.

We were also told the clause is needed to insure that the folks in Washington D.C. understand that Oregon is willing to move forward with the project and is asking for an $850 million federal grant to build a light rail system to Vancouver, Washington. This alleged need ignores that the people of Vancouver appear not to want the light rail extended to their city.

Another troubling aspect of HB 2800 is that it actually authorizes Oregon state highway funds to be spent to build highway assets in Washington! I can find no clause that authorizes Washington state highway funds to be spent to build highway assets in Oregon. Neither can I find a trigger that stops the process if Washington fails to make an equal amount of their highway funding available to build Oregon highway assets.

This is just one example of why the people might want to review our work.

HB 2800 authorizes Oregon’s participation in the largest and most expensive public works project in our history, yet the bill was never referred to the budget writing Ways and Means Committee. We are told this bill does not require referral to Ways and Means because it doesn’t actually authorize the borrowing of any money. We are assured that borrowing authority will be conferred in a later bill.

Really? That is certainly a distinction without meaning. How foolish would we appear if we voted to authorize the construction of the most expensive public works project in our State’s history and then voted against funding that same project?

Moreover, there is no guarantee that the legislature will ever have the opportunity for a straight-up vote on this projects funding?  We may expect business as usual. The borrowing authority for the bridge project will likely be buried in an omnibus bonding bill that includes a “chicken pot pie” for every legislator’s district. This regrettable practice insures that most legislators will vote for all of the projects selected by the majority party leadership because a no vote would deny a needed project in their own district.

We are being told that the bonding will most likely be funded by revenue bonds using future federal highway grant money as the source of revenue. We are further being told that this will not significantly affect our future ability to build and maintain Oregon highways.

This source of funding for debt service presupposes that the federal grant money will continue to flow for at least another twenty years. Another new source of revenue will be required in the event that future federal grant funding is significantly reduced or eliminated. HB 2800 is silent on that issue.

Additionally, this plan apparently presupposes that shifting the use of about $700 million of federal highway grant money to pay principle and interest on the bridge project over the next twenty years will not have a significant effect on the ability to build and maintain other highways in Oregon. This assumption is being made at the same time that other highway revenues are declining and new or enhanced sources of funding are being actively contemplated.

In short, we were asked to approve an emergency measure to build a project that has yet to be fully designed. We were asked to approve a project that may obligate Oregonians to repay as much as $1.1 billion  over the next twenty years.

Moreover, we were asked to approve a project that has no apparent protection against cost overruns. Oregon has never participated in a project of this size much less participated with other government entities to build such a project. In my opinion, the cap on total expenditures included in the bill will provide little protection. Once the bridge is under construction it will be finished regardless of the cost. Once finished it will be paid for regardless of whether the tolling revenue is sufficient to pay the principle and interest on the toll revenue bonds. At least half of all those potential costs will be borne by Oregon taxpayers.

Finally we were asked to approve a bill that has been denied the opportunity for Ways and Means analysis and that explicitly prohibits review by the people.

For these and a number of other reasons I voted no on HB 2800.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls