As Oregon’s legislative session winds down, lawmakers’ final days in Salem could spell the final days of the Columbia River Crossing.
Gov. John Kitzhaber has said he’ll pull the plug on the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement if lawmakers don’t approve it this session. The governor set a March 9 deadline — this Sunday — for that to happen.
The bill authorizing the $2.9 billion project has yet to come to a vote in either chamber. Many believe it doesn’t have the support to survive. And though nothing is final until the gavel falls, CRC leaders are already preparing to close down the project if they come up empty — a prospect that appears increasingly likely.
“Absent any word, we are prepared to absolutely follow the governor’s direction, and we will have an announcement at the proper time,” said Dave Thompson, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation. “We are preparing a shutdown plan.”
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The CRC became an Oregon-led effort after the Washington Legislature authorized no money for it last year. The move effectively pulled Washington out of the project. More than half the CRC’s staff packed up and moved on as the project began to close down, only to re-emerge later as a pared-down version led by ODOT and TriMet, the Portland-area transit agency.
CRC leaders say they need Oregon to commit money to the project for it to continue. Kitzhaber’s declaration also included a call for “appropriate action” by the state of Washington by March 15, likely in the form of an intergovernmental agreement without legislative approval.
Whether that can happen in time is unclear. But if Oregon doesn’t act first, it won’t matter, said CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney.
“If the first condition isn’t met, there’s no reason for the second condition to be met,” Putney said.
House Bill 4113, which would authorize the CRC, cleared a House committee in February. It was referred to the joint Ways and Means committee, where it’s sat for three weeks without so much as a hearing.
Even as they await the project’s fate, CRC planners have continued to work on it, Thompson said. Remaining staff members are finalizing a geotechnical report detailing soil and rock conditions under the river.
“No matter what happens, any sort of replacement would need that information,” Thompson said. “Since we started it, we wanted to finish it.”
The CRC’s downtown Vancouver office already has fewer workers than it did earlier this year, Putney said. About 34 people still work there, she said. Before Washington pulled out last year, almost 100 staff and consultants used the space.
The CRC has spent more than $180 million in planning.
Closing the project for good would likely mean moving the rest of the staff out and archiving materials, among other tasks.
Depending what legislators decide, the official direction to do so could come soon.
“We’re prepared to begin that process immediately,” Thompson said.