Decision time on I-5 bridge project

The Columbia River Crossing will benefit this area as well as Portland

Southern Oregon residents might think the debate over building a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River doesn't have much to do with them. They should think again.

The bridge will link Portland and Vancouver, replacing the outdated spans that now function as a dangerous bottleneck at high-traffic times. The project also will extend Portland's light-rail system across the river — a feature that irritates some opponents.

But above all, the Columbia River Crossing, as the project is known, will benefit businesses up and down the I-5 corridor, including here in the Rogue Valley. That's why it has the support of business interests that might otherwise oppose a major taxpayer-supported public works project.

The CRC also has the support of organized labor, for the obvious reason that the project will mean a great many jobs for the lengthy construction period.

The project is in the news now because the 2013 Legislature is considering whether to contribute $450 million toward the cost. The Washington Legislature is debating chipping in the same amount.

In return, the two states will get federal highway funding to bridge the gap (pardon the pun) between their contributions and the project's estimated $3.5 billion price tag.

The bridge also will charge a toll, which will help pay off the bonds sold to finance the states' shares.

Oregon lawmakers will need to find about $35 million a year to service the debt on the bonds. House Speaker Tina Kotek says that can be accomplished with existing federal dollars in the Oregon Department of Transportation's budget from now until 2015, when a permanent funding source would be identified.

The matter is a priority for Kotek and other supporters because time is running out to secure the federal matching funds, and Oregon needs to approve its share to prompt Washington lawmakers to follow suit before their session ends in April.

The crossing project has been in the works for 10 years. It has not been a smooth trip. Design flaws — including initially making the span too low for some ship traffic — caused delays. So far, more than $100 million has already been invested in planning and engineering.

Opponents include environmentalists who don't want to encourage car use and conservatives who don't like tolls or light rail.

Here's the bottom line: Tolls will help pay for the bridge, and will come from those who use it. Surely that's preferable to taxing everyone. And the light rail piece is integral to getting as much federal funding as possible, some of which is dedicated to projects that include mass transit. It would be short-sighted to build a new bridge without providing for light rail.

As for the environmental concerns, car traffic isn't going away anytime soon, and this is Interstate 5 we're talking about — the primary artery on the West Coast.

While it may seem this is an issue for Portland residents to fight over, the outcome will affect everyone up and down the state. Lawmakers should make the commitment and secure the federal match.

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