Legal opinion could boost Oregon-only bridge plan

A top assistant to Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said this week that an Oregon-led Columbia River Crossing would pass legal muster — as long as funds from Washington aren't used in the project.

In letters to Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Coast Guard Rear Adm. F.J. Kenney, Senior Assistant Attorney General Bryce Brown wrote that Washington can legally authorize Oregon to build and operate the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement on Washington soil.

The Washington Legislature adjourned earlier this year without giving any money to the project. After being declared dead by leaders in both states, the project has re-emerged as a pared-down effort with Oregon at the helm.

The revised plan would still build a new bridge over the Columbia with light rail and tolls, but would not immediately include any freeway work north of state Highway 14. The revised project would cost an estimated $2.7 billion.

Brown weighed in on the project in response to questions by the Coast Guard, which is considering whether to approve a bridge permit the project must have to move forward.

After reviewing those questions, "we see no fatal flaws that would preclude Oregon's lead on the project," Brown wrote.

The Coast Guard had asked primarily about the ability of various state agencies to authorize Oregon to conduct work on the project in Washington. In each case, Brown's letter found that such arrangements are possible with intergovernmental agreements — and without legislative approval. A memo to Inslee reached a similar conclusion on light rail, permitting, mitigation agreements and tolling.

The opinions are likely to give ammunition to bridge supporters who continue to work around the Washington Legislature to salvage at least some of the project.

They also come as Oregon legislators prepare to convene a special session on Sept. 30, when the bridge plan could land on the agenda.

Lawmakers there must reauthorize their own state's financial commitment to the project, which is set to expire without funding from Washington and other conditions being met.

Oregon agencies have scrambled in recent weeks to vet the feasibility of the revised project. But one key voice — that of Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler — hasn't been heard yet.

Brown's opinion comes in the midst of a key month for the project.

The Coast Guard has said it plans to make a decision on the bridge permit by Sept. 30. And the C-Tran (Clark County Public Transportation Benefit Area) board of directors will consider a possible light rail operations financing plan during a special meeting on Sept. 26.

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