Vancouver won’t pay to visit Dem-happy Oregon

A concept graphic of the planned Columbia River Crossing. Credit: Columbia River Crossing

Voters in Washington's southernmost city on Tuesday threw a monkey wrench into plans for a $3.5 billion bridge across the Columbia River, linking Vancouver with Portland and replacing the aging Interstate 5 bridge over the river.

Vancouver voters, always cognizant of the need to define themselves as "not Portland," were giving only 43.7 percent support to a 0.1 percent increase in the sales tax as a way of raising the local match for the Columbia River Crossing. The levy would pay for mass transit on the new bridge; for years, Vancouverites have complained about traffic backups on I-5, but they have never embraced Portland's love affair with light rail.

Rejection of Vancouver funding for the bridge throws it once again into uncertainty, and sponsors look to the region's senior Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Ron Wyden, to help them out of the gridlock. Project leaders hope for a 2014 start, but that appears unlikely.

Backers of the bridge promise to look for other sources of funding. The sales-tax increase would have produced $5 million its first year.

Otherwise, across the Columbia Democrats swept the table Tuesday in Oregon, turning back Republican efforts to reverse the political status quo that dates to the 1980s, but voters rejected legalizing marijuana to remain just a step behind Washington on the nation's Left Coast. With vote-counting nearing 100 percent at noon Wednesday, the legal-marijuana measure was trailing with only 45.2 percent approval.

"In light of Tuesday's election, should you invest in Clark County real estate to accommodate fleeing Oregonians who want the right to marry a same-sex partner or smoke a joint in peace?" wondered The Oregonian's Jeff Mapes, dean of the state's political reporters. "Of course, you have to wonder how those new Washingtonians will commute back to their jobs in Oregon. Now that Clark County voters jettisoned a sales tax to pay for light rail, it throws another kink in the plans for that shiny new bridge over the Columbia carrying cars, bikes and MAX in splendid harmony," Mapes continued.

Oregon voted predictably for President Barack Obama, with 53 percent in near-complete results as of Wednesday at noon, and re-elected all five members of Congress with good margins.

Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, serving an unprecedented third term, gained Democratic control of both houses of the Legislature; the House had been a 30-30 proposition, but Democrats picked up four seats to gain control and held control of the Senate 16-14. The battle was joined in the Portland suburbs, where GOP gains in 2010 were reversed.

Republicans had hoped to regain one or two statewide offices — the party has not held a statewide office since U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith was defeated for reelection in 2008. But Democratic Secretary of State Kate Brown was leading Republican Knute Buehler and three minor-party candidates early Wednesday, 50.6 percent to Buehler's 44.3 percent. Democratic Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian had a 51.9 percent to 47.6 percent edge over Republican Bruce Starr.

Kitzhaber served two terms as governor in the 1990s, plagued by nasty battles with a conservative Republican majority in the House; he was limited to two consecutive terms, but came back in 2010. There is no heir apparent; if he leaves in 2012 the office of Secretary of State is a traditional grooming spot in Oregon, but Brown showed vulnerability in this year’s voting. Another candidate could be Treasurer Ted Wheeler, a former Multnomah County (Portland) commissioner who won election easily Tuesday night. He was appointed in 2010 to fill a vacancy. And Kitzhaber, a very fit 65 years of age, may seek a second (fourth) term.

In Portland, voters retained their liberal voting record by approving a $482 million bond measure to upgrade several public schools, rebuild one grade school and do seismic upgrades and other long-deferred maintenance. The measure got 65 percent approval after a long grassroots campaign; a previous bond effort failed in 2011. Voters also added to their tax basket by approving a permanent library financing district for Multnomah County and an income tax for arts instruction in the schools.

To preside over Portland's municipal affairs in the next four years, city voters turned to former City Councilman Charlie Hales, as an insurgent campaign for political organizer and state Rep. Jefferson Smith collapsed in the final weeks of the campaign. Smith, running with strong support from liberals and young voters, saw his support erode with stories about a college encounter in which he admitted to striking a woman in the face; he also survived several other embarrassments dealing with loss of his driver's license and aggressive behavior. Hales polled 62 percent of city votes to 30 percent for Smith.

With a new mayor in Portland to face pushback from Vancouver voters across the river, the persistent issues of highway gridlock and mass-transit finance are likely to dominate the coming year along the Columbia River.

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