U.S. Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler went down swinging Thursday as the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee denied her attempt to make federal transit funding for major projects like the Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project contingent upon local referendums.

Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, brought her amendment during debate over the American Energy & Infrastructure Jobs Act, which the committee ultimately approved Friday morning. The bill authorizes $260 billion over five years to maintain current funding for federal highway, transit, and safety projects.

Given the controversy surrounding the Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project (CRC), Herrera Beutler has long called for local officials to hold a district-wide vote on the project.

Herrera Beutler

Herrera Beutler argued that a referendum should precede federal funding for light rail.

“Darn straight I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that the people I represent are asked … whether or not they’re going to put their hard earned tax dollars into a federal program,” Herrera Beutler told fellow committee members.

CRC planners are hoping to receive $850 in federal Small Starts funds to extend light rail from North Portland to Vancouver over a new 10-lane bridge. However, the cost for operation and maintenance will fall to Clark County transit agency C-Tran, which will bring a new sales tax request before voters in November. The project also includes more than $1 billion in tolls.

Herrera Beutler’s amendment was part of a 17-page “Manager’s Amendment” offered by committee chair John Mica, R-Florida. It didn’t name the CRC specifically. Instead, it targeted multi-state projects that include Federal News Start dollars, which pay for light rail.

It would have prevented the Federal Highway Administration from approving a new start project unless a public referendum first approved the financing mechanism. The referendum would have been limited to jurisdictions that did not already have a “fixed guideway public transportation system” – namely light rail.

‘Any day of the week and twice on Sunday’

“The people I support are going to be asked to pay maintenance and operations for a multi-billion dollar project over many years, and I think it is very fair, respectable, and right that those people who are going to be required to pay this money have a right to say, ‘Yes, we want this project,’ or ‘No, we don’t want this project,” said Herrera Beutler. “Any day of the week and twice on Sunday I’ll stand here and defend that.”

Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio cried foul, saying the amendment was nothing more than an earmark, which House rules forbid. He offered his own amendment to strike Herrera Beutler’s language from the Manager’s amendment.

“It’s clearly written by and advocated for by one member of this committee, for one project, which is moving forward after 10 years, as a high priority between two states and there is a local contingent which is opposed to the project or to tolling for the project,” DeFazio said. “For us to dictate that that city hold a referendum is outrageous.”

Herrera Beutler took offense, saying that her amendment had nothing to do with earmarks, which she insists are requests for discretionary federal funds. She said any rail project across the country that meets the criteria would qualify for a referendum.

“This is an incredibly important issue that people across this county are being asked to consider,” she said. “And the cost of operations and maintenance of anything else they’re going to be asked to foot the bill for falls to the local taxpayers. I’m simply fighting to make sure they have a seat at the table so that bureaucrats at the FTA, so that people here can’t say, ‘Yes, taxpayers, you have to pay for this.’”

Disparate impact on small towns, major centers?

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., called the amendment irresponsible because it had the potential of denying a say to voters in major population centers like New York City and Newark – who would likely pay for 90 percent of projects – while giving tiny communities in surrounding areas veto power.

“The way it is written, this will be used in many unforeseen situations, for multibillion dollar projects, and give tiny groups of people – tiny percentages of the people who are affected, who’d have to pay for it and who would use it and who would benefit from it … veto power over everybody,” he said. “And that makes no sense at all.”

Herrera Beutler found an ally in fellow Republican Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., who opposed DeFazio’s amendment. He indicated that few people use light rail in his jurisdiction even though local officials might favor it.

“I’m not surprised that elected officials support these kinds of projects,” he said. “That’s what the problem [is] around the country. We all want to show up for ribbon cuttings. We all want to spend other peoples’ money, hard-earned taxpayer dollars.”

After a half-hour of debate, the committee ultimately approved DeFazio’s amendment, removing Herrera Beutler’s amendment from further discussion.

Following the vote, Herrera Beutler, in a prepared statement, said she is not done trying to force a vote on the CRC in Clark County.

“Clark County taxpayers deserve a voice in the bridge replacement process,” Herrera Beutler said. “I successfully elevated this issue all the way to Congress, and my efforts are not done. There is still a placeholder in the bill for us to work out our differences and come to an agreement.”

See our continuing coverage of the Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project.

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