The three Portland mayoral candidates have staked out positions on the CRC highway mega-project.
Some argue this is a non-issue, as the city has signed off on the project, and the funds would come from the state governments, federal government, and tolls.
I disagree. The mayor has a big soapbox and lots of influence, the City of Portland has been using its federal lobbying chits to push for the CRC, city coffers might be tapped for cost overruns, the city is losing out through opportunity costs, and if the project falls apart from lack of funding (or lawsuits), the mayor will be critical in creating a Plan B. That’s why the media, the Portland Business Alliance, sustainability advocates and citizens continue to ask about the issue.
As written up in The Oregonian, the Portland Mercury, and the Portland Tribune the shorthand is: Brady is for (most of) the CRC highway mega-project. Hales doesn't think it's fundable. And Smith is against it. All agree there are issues surrounding transportation choices, freight movement, and traffic flow that should be addressed.
To be fair, the candidates have more to say. After all, the mega-project is the most expensive public works project in the region’s history – around $4,000 per household. And it’s meant to last for one hundred years, so several generations will be impacted by our decisions about it today.
As a member of the legislative committee that reviewed the pro-CRC bill last year, Rep. Jefferson Smith has learned more about the project than most. After his studying, Smith opposes the current plan, and thinks it’s unlikely project backers will find the funding to move forward. Smith knows first-hand how difficult it will be to convince the Oregon legislature to pass a gas tax increase, which will be needed to fund the project. At the VOIS event Smith characterized the CRC as “a mega-highway and set of interchanges for Vancouver commuters that if we build we can’t meet our climate goals.” That reminder – about meeting our responsibilities in the climate crisis – is a critical one. Smith wants to be ready to pick up the pieces if they fall apart, and is looking for what the Portland Tribune characterized as “a smaller, less expensive alternative.”
As Senior Vice-President at HDR Engineering, Charlie Hales has spent the last ten years of his life working to build major transportation investments, mainly light-rail and streetcars across the country. In his previous ten years as a Portland City Councilor, Hales pushed forward airport light rail, the Yellow Line and the Portland Streetcar. So Hales has twenty years of experience in analyzing and understanding big transportation projects. The Portland Tribune quotes Hales calling the CRC “a shelf study” -- a big project that won’t be built. Rather than taking a position on the project's worth, Hales simply argues it's not credible. He told the Portland Business Alliance: “I support a fundable, buildable project and I don’t believe the current proposal meets those needs.”
Eileen Brady is a CRC supporter, with an asterisk. In response to the Portland Business Alliance’s question, “Do you support the CRC project as proposed in the Final Environmental Impact Statement and will you advocate for the state and federal funding for its construction?” Brady answers: “Yes.” She then refers to her website statement, where she hedges her bets by saying there are parts of the project we might “skinny down.” Ironically, the “fresh start”-themed Brady argues we should accept the mega-highway mess central to the project’s EIS, rather than starting immediately to create an affordable, targeted Plan B.
Brady repeats many of the discredited claims about the project (safety, "thousands" of jobs), acknowledges some of the problems, ponders some options, and adds a poor argument – that because we’ve spent $140 million, it’s wasteful to not spend another $2,000 to $3,400+ million. It’s a disappointing misunderstanding of sunk costs, and a surprising error for a business owner.
Economics 101 teaches students why it makes no sense for sunk costs to affect decisions. It might best be explained through a joke:
Two men are sitting in a multi-seat latrine. The first sees the second finish his business and stand up, only to have a quarter fall out of his pocket into the hole. The first watches, stunned, as the second pulls a $10 bill out of his wallet and throws it after the quarter. “Why’d you do that?” the first asks. The second replies, “Well, I’m sure as hell not going down there for just a quarter.”
Many thanks to Jefferson Smith, for being courageous enough to stand up for our responsibilities in the climate crisis, and for calling the project what it mainly is - a mega-highway and set of interchanges. I'm glad Charlie Hales is direct about how the financing doesn't add up, and Eileen Brady is aware of some of the problems with the project. There's no need to keep throwing $10 bills - or hundreds of millions of dollars - down this hole.