Technically, the Washington state House's transportation bill was not about replacing the Columbia River Bridge in Vancouver.
Politically, the bill was all about the bridge's replacement.
The House passed an $8.4 billion transportation bill 68-28 Tuesday after an unsuccessful Republican attempt to remove light rail from the bridge's design. Also in a separate-but-related action Tuesday, a floundering 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike was revived in a versions spreading out the increase over four years.
Normally, transportation bills are non-controversial, bipartisan affairs. But Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and House are vehemently split on whether the old bridge between Washington and Oregon should be replaced now with its new design, or replaced years from now with a newer design minus light rail and with a higher span.
Tuesday's bill essentially continues bridge and highway projects already underway in Washington, with nothing new added. It includes administrative costs for the "Columbia River Crossing" bridge between the two states, a project that has gone on for more than a decade on paper.
Also on Tuesday, House Transportation Committee chairwoman Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, announced a revamped $8.4 billion-over-12-years transportation revenue package to replace an earlier $9.8 billion-over-10-years proposal that received lots of boos. It goes to a public hearing before the House Transportation Committee on Friday.
The new package replaces a 10-cent gas tax hike of 2 cents annually for five years with a 10-cent hike with four separate increases — 5 cents in 2013, 2 cents in 2014, 2 cents in 2015 and 1 cent in 2016. The change is to supposed to provide greater financial oomph on bonded debt. The new package does not have the original proposal's hazardous substance tax and bicycle tax.
But the new package includes raising $450 million for the Columbia River Crossing. The feds have agreed to pay the lion's share of the bridges $3.5 billion price tag if Oregon and Washington each pony up $450 million. If the states do not, the project drops immediately on the feds' priority list with the money not likely becoming available for several years. Oregon has agreed to allocate its $450 million.
Washington's Republican senators don't like the bridge proposal in its present form and don't want to appropriate the $450 million. The House will likely call for the $450 million appropriation, leading up to another Senate-House deadlock.
The main pro-new-bridge arguments are that the current bridge is very old with underwater structural questions, and is a major link along a major West Coast transportation corridor. The anti-new-bridge arguments are that it would be too low for some boat traffic and Vancouver residents don't want to pay for light rail. Clark County's legislators are split along party lines on the issue.
That led to Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, to propose a transportation bill amendment —defeated along party lines Tuesday — that would have prohibited any more money being allocated to the Columbia River Crossing under its current design, and would require an environmental impact study done that would eliminate the light rail component.
The new bridge design, said Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend, "continues the debacle of light rail on the Columbia River Crossing. ... This state has over-invested in transit and under-invested in (highway) lane capacity. ... Ninety-five percent of commuters drive to work, school and shopping. The budget continues that ideology, that assault on vehicles."
Clibborn countered that delays will add to the cost of the project. "It took $180 million to get this far. We could spend another $180 million to come to a decision in 10 years."