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Oregon Gov. Kotek balks at plans for $1 billion Interstate 5 bridge bond

Gov. Tina Kotek said she isn’t comfortable with the state issuing $1 billion in general obligation bonds over the next eight years to pay to replace the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver.
Oregon Department of Transportation/Flickr
Gov. Tina Kotek said she isn’t comfortable with the state issuing $1 billion in general obligation bonds over the next eight years to pay to replace the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver.

Gov. Tina Kotek isn’t on board with legislative plans to commit $1 billion in state-issued bonds to replace the Interstate 5 bridge connecting Oregon and Washington.

Lawmakers on the Joint Transportation Committee last week previewed plans to issue $1 billion in general obligation bonds for the bridge replacement. Investors would buy the bonds, giving the state money upfront for the bridge replacement, and the state would repay those investors with interest over the next four two-year budget cycles.

Kotek told reporters during a tour of Polk County on Friday that she believes the aging bridge needs to be replaced, and she thinks transportation officials are on the right track with their current design, which includes three travel lanes in each direction, light rail and paths for buses, bicyclists and pedestrians.

But she balked at the proposed source of those funds. Kotek has called for using $770 million in bonds for affordable housing projects and another $130 million in bonds for housing with services for chronically homeless people with disabilities.

“I am uncomfortable with the current conversation of a billion dollars over the next four biennia in obligation bonding,” she said. “I think there needs to be some general obligation bonding this session to move forward on our commitment on the bridge.”

A January report from the state Treasury, which oversees bonds in Oregon, predicted that the state could issue $7.76 billion in bonds over the next four budget periods, averaging $970 million each year. Borrowing too much would hurt the state’s credit rating, increasing costs for future bonds.

Kotek said she’d urge lawmakers to take money from existing funds for the bridge, saying the state shouldn’t tie up most of its bonding capacity on the bridge.

“Right now I’m asking for a billion dollars in bonding for housing,” she said. “If we tie up a lot of money in the bridge over the next four biennia, that limits our ability to do other things. So we really have to think that through.”

Rep. Susan McLain, co-chair of the Joint Transportation Committee and the main proponent of bridge legislation, did not immediately return a call or text late Friday afternoon. The Hillsboro Democrat is a member of the budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee, which had a hearing scheduled in Newport at 5 p.m. Friday.

Kelliann Amico, a spokeswoman for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, said she couldn’t comment on active legislation.

The bridge is estimated to cost between $5 billion and $7.5 billion, with current plans calling for $1 billion each from Oregon and Washington, up to $1.6 billion from highway tolls and between $1.7 billion and $2.7 billion in anticipated federal grants.

The Oregon Capital Chronicle is a professional, nonprofit news organization. We are an affiliate of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. The Capital Chronicle retains full editorial independence, meaning decisions about news and coverage are made by Oregonians for Oregonians.

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. Julia is an award-winning journalist who reported on the tangled efforts to audit the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona.