PORTLAND — Oregon business leaders and Gov. John Kitzhaber on Monday called on the Legislature to approve funding for a new bridge carrying Interstate 5 across the Columbia River.
If Oregon and Washington don’t make commitments soon to pay their $450 million shares of the bridge cost, the opportunity for federal money will fade, bridge proponents said at a meeting in Portland of political and business leaders.
“We are trade-dependent states, and we need to have the ability to have trade flow freely,” said John Carter, chairman of Schnitzer Steel Industries and leader of the Oregon Business Plan Steering Committee.
Replacing the Columbia River bridge is one of the top priorities of the business group, along with improving the quality of education and cutting pension benefits for public employees to free up money for schools.
The bridge has been a political flashpoint on both sides of the river. It is strongly supported by business groups — which want to speed the flow of commerce — and labor unions, whose workers would build it.
Proponents say the existing bridge is too small, choking the flow of commuter and freight traffic, and would likely collapse in a large earthquake.
Critics say it’s a waste of money and poorly designed.
Plans call for the bridge to be funded by tolls, tax dollars from Oregon and Washington, and federal money. The project is projected to cost more than $3 billion for the bridge and new freeway interchanges on both sides of the river.
Kitzhaber said the most likely source for Oregon’s share of the project would be a new tax on vehicle registrations or titles. He said he’d support hiking the gas tax but didn’t think it was politically feasible.
“After a decade of planning, it’s time to get this project off the ground,” Kitzhaber said in a speech. He said he’d like the funding settled by March 1.
Kitzhaber also pitched his proposal to cut back on pension benefits for retired public employees in order to free up more money for education. The plan has broad support in the business community, but union officials and some of Kitzhaber’s fellow Democrats are wary.
Kitzhaber spoke to House Democrats at a weekend retreat and acknowledged that there’s “a lot of nervousness” about his pension agenda. Some of his other proposals should be very attractive to Democrats and to unions, Kitzhaber said, including a proposal to add funding for day care and for more than 200 new union-represented child-protection workers in the Department of Human Services.
“I don’t expect them to embrace it, but I’m hoping that it won’t be World War III,” Kitzhaber said.