Federal money is available for the Columbia River Crossing project, should regional leaders choose to move forward with the plan to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., announced this week.
The spending deal reached this week by leaders in both chambers of Congress sets aside $65 million in New Starts grants to build the CRC's light-rail connection from Portland to Clark College. The appropriations package totals $1.1 trillion in spending for the 2014 fiscal year and is expected to pass smoothly in the House and Senate, according to Murray's office.
"For years, we've known the outdated I-5 bridge must be replaced, and my commitment to supporting the Columbia River Crossing has not changed," Murray, a longtime supporter of the CRC, said in a statement. "The funding I secured in this bill shows that. When Washington and Oregon are able to find a path forward for the project, I will be ready to fight for the federal funding it needs."
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas and a CRC opponent, said that even though the spending package makes money available for transportation projects, it does not guarantee that the CRC will get any of that money. Herrera Beutler has pointed out that CRC project planners still aren't ready to apply for the federal grant. Oregon lawmakers haven't committed the necessary money toward the project.
"The bill does not change the rules to make it easier for the CRC to obtain funding, and the CRC still does not qualify under those rules," Herrera Beutler's spokesman, Casey Bowman, said by email.
Herrera Beutler, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, and Murray, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, have been at odds over how much money should be available for the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts grants program.
CRC planners hope to secure $850 million through New Starts, which would be spread out over multiple years. The $2.7 billion CRC project would replace the I-5 Bridge and bring Portland's light rail to Vancouver.
Oregon lawmakers are considering whether to lead on the project, which has been scaled back since Washington legislators failed to pass $450 million in state money for the CRC. Involving Washington state lawmakers in the project is not a requirement for receiving New Starts money.
Last year, Herrera Beutler supported a House spending plan that included $1.68 billion for New Starts grants in 2014. The bill appropriations committee leaders agreed to this week doles out $2.13 billion for New Starts. The FTA plans to pay for the CRC's light-rail component, if the project can qualify.
"The omnibus appropriations bill fully funds the president's fiscal year 2014 New Starts budget request, which includes recommended funding for Columbia River Crossing, a project of national and regional significance," FTA spokesman Brian Farber said Tuesday. "Should the CRC meet all of the program's requirements for a full funding grant agreement, the Federal Transit Administration will fund the project."
On Tuesday, Bowman downplayed the $65 million available for the CRC in the spending package.
"If an I-5 bridge replacement project actually manages to meet the funding requirements in the future, it will have the chance to compete for federal funds," he said. "This is the same opportunity the project already had before this bill was passed."
In addition to her position on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Murray chairs the Senate Budget Committee. She recently struck a high-profile budget deal with House member Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that set the amount of money the feds can spend during the 2014 fiscal year.
"The final spending bill released this week includes funding for dozens of projects that are important to Washington state and the Pacific Northwest, and I'm particularly proud that we were able to secure funding for the Columbia River Crossing," Murray said.