WASHINGTON — Gov. Chris Gregoire of Washington state has a message for members of Congress who are so paralyzed they can’t even pass a basic highway bill: Take a look at the Columbia River bridge on Interstate 5 that connects Washington and Oregon, with its northbound lanes now 95 years old, built on wood pilings to accommodate horse-and-buggy traffic.
“I mean, it needs to be replaced,” the Democratic governor said in an interview this week in Washington, D.C.
With federal money for highways set to dry up on June 30, Gregoire fears that the extreme partisanship of members of Congress is threatening the state’s ability to maintain both its roads and finances.
“I don’t know that collectively they have an understanding of the impact it has outside, in a state,” Gregoire said.
Unless Congress acts in the next five weeks, Gregoire said, the state’s mega-projects “are all at risk,” including the upgrade of the Columbia River Crossing between Vancouver and Portland, Ore., and plans to replace the floating bridge between Seattle and Bellevue and the Alaskan Way Viaduct along Seattle’s waterfront.
She said she’s also worried that the state’s financial condition will take another hit later this year if Congress replays the 2011 drama over whether to increase the nation’s debt limit. She said it lessened consumer confidence in the state last year.
“I’m afraid of whether it will trigger the states back into a recession, or stymie us in our recovery,” Gregoire said. “What degree it will hit us is the only question, not whether it will hurt us. … I have clear evidence.”
For Gregoire, the link between the state’s finances and congressional wrangling became obvious in August when members nearly shut down the government in a dispute over whether to lift the cap on the national debt.
In September, Gregoire said, the state’s economic forecast decreased by $1.4 billion as consumers responded by spending less. And she said that hit hard in a state that has no income tax and relies on sales tax receipts to pay for its government services.
“We were recovering,” she said. “We were seeing strong signs things were working. We had consumer confidence building.” After the showdown in Congress, she said, consumer confidence “just plummeted” in Washington state: “You talk to small businesses, and they will tell you the doors just didn’t open.”
If Congress doesn’t muster the votes to pass a new highway bill, Gregoire said, states will get stuck with higher costs caused by the delay of their construction projects.
Jennifer Ziegler, the governor’s transportation policy advisor, said state officials fear that federal aid for highway funding could be cut by almost 80 percent in 2013 if Congress does not act to keep its highway trust fund solvent. She said that would force the state to defer work on 1,340 miles of pavement, 34 safety projects and eight other bridge-replacement projects, along with smaller electrical upgrades and plans to replace culverts and traffic signals.
To prevent that from happening, Ziegler said, the state is backing a Senate highway bill that would send an additional $44 million to Washington for its projects next year.
While members of the House and Senate have been bickering over a transportation bill for months, a House-Senate conference committee is trying to negotiate a bill for a final vote next month.
On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, the head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, expressed confidence that conferees would finish their work in time and that there would be no more delays or extensions. She told reporters that the committee is making “great progress” and that she had met privately with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, who wants to get a bill passed by June 30.
“He is working to make sure we get this done, and that is the best news I have heard in a long time,” Boxer said.
Gregoire, who will leave the governor’s office in January, had other issues on her mind during a quick trip to Washington, D.C., this week.
On Capitol Hill, she and Nebraska Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who replaced Gregoire as the chairman of the National Governors Association, lobbied senators to oppose budget cuts proposed for the Air National Guard.
Gregoire called the Department of Defense cuts “unacceptable” for Washington state, saying it would result in the elimination of an entire Air National Guard unit now serving in Afghanistan. And she said it would make it more difficult for states to use National Guard equipment to respond to emergencies.
“Nobody is thinking about the domestic role that they play,” she said.
Gregoire, who earlier this year signed a bill approving same-sex marriages in Washington state, said President Barack Obama took a “gutsy” move by backing gay marriage. She predicted that the president’s support will help proponents in November if opponents of gay marriage can gather enough signatures to force a public vote on the new state law.
Gregoire said she’s expecting the issue to go to voters. And while gay marriage has never survived at the ballot box, she said: “I’m optimistic that in November we’ll be the first state to do it at the ballot.”
On Wednesday, Gregoire, Heineman and Delaware Democratic Gov. Jack Markell paid a visit to the Washington Post editorial board, where they made the case that governors --- unlike members of Congress --- can work together.
Gregoire said that all of the nation’s governors united in opposing the cuts to the Air National Guard. And she said the executives of the states have worked together on other issues, including transportation and K-12 education.
Noting that the states of Washington, Nebraska and Delaware are “about as diverse as you can get,” Gregoire said it still hasn’t stopped the governors from cooperating.
“We’re not only Democrats and Republicans,” she said. “When it comes to doing the job, we work together. We don’t see ourselves as having another choice. We must work together, because we have things we have to get done. There’s a contrast.”