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Oregon-Washington Bridge Project Overestimated Toll Money Revenue

Wed July 27, 2011 - National Edition
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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) A financing plan for the proposed new Columbia River bridge between Oregon and Washington took a hit with a report from the Oregon treasurer’s office suggesting the expected revenue from tolls was overestimated by some 15 to 25 percent.

The Oregonian reported the estimates were too high because they were made before the recession and its impact on jobs, economic growth and driver behavior.

Traffic dwindled on the bridge, but the project’s backers failed to account for the corresponding drop in toll money.

“The economy obviously took a significant hit, which drove reductions in traffic,” said Oregon treasurer Ted Wheeler.

The project is a 50-50 venture between Oregon and Washington. The original $3 billion bridge plan anticipated $1.25 billion in federal highway dollars, about $900 million in contributions from each state and $1.3 billion from bond sales backed by toll revenue.

The report from the treasurer’s office by two consulting firms focused on the toll revenue. It found that the traffic numbers were significantly off and would likely stay that way. The report confirms the suspicions of many of the project’s critics, who for years have questioned the project’s traffic projections.

The new estimates mean the project will have about $500 million less to work with.

The Washington and Oregon transportation departments had for years studied what to do with the border crossing. Chronic traffic congestion has become a safety issue and an impediment to both land and marine freight traffic, and it transformed commuting into a daily nightmare.

In April, Govs. John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Chris Gregoire of Washington decided on a deck truss bridge design, similar to the newer Glenn Jackson Interstate 205 Bridge just to the east.

For Kitzhaber, it was déjà vu: The governor who served from 1995-2003 returned to office in 2010 to find the bridge still at a “proposed” stage.

When the report was released, Oregon treasury department officials advised the Columbia River Crossing, the name given to the joint project, to look to the federal Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan program. Run by the Federal Highway Administration, the program extends loans and credit lines to surface projects.

The bridge now isn’t just clogged, it’s potentially dangerous. The current bridge is two spans, one from 1917 and the second from 1958. The structures are considered vulnerable to an earthquake.

Replacing the bridge is a priority for business interests and labor unions on both sides of the Columbia, but planners had spent more than $100 million on it without reaching an agreement that accommodates a variety of interests.

Critics question the cost, and some say a design that focuses on cars and encourages more traffic will add to the load of greenhouse gases.

The project still has a projected goal of breaking ground in 2013.

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