The Mayoral Candidates and the Costly, Risky CRC

Evan Manvel

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.

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.

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    And, yes, Max Brumm is also against the CRC. Don't know where the other Max is on it.

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      Glad to hear that Max Brumm finally figured out what the CRC is.

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      Evan, any argument for forcing Portland to restart the EIS process is absurd. We know for a fact the private sector does not care for infrastructure and if anything, the private sector lives to exploit it. Since we have the established procedure to procure bridge funding for Portland and at the Federal level, we ought to follow them. Moreover, anyone who wants to restart the EIS process simply externalizes all the environmental damage which would otherwise be mitigated if the CRC mega project proceeds in accord with the prescribed EIS process. Cost externalization is a capital market failure and although its popular with some on Wall Street, its increasingly less so. I can't be in favor of externalizing costs because those would get passed on to you, me and everybody like a tax only far worse. Eileen's position on CRC and EIS makes the most sense to me.

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    Disclaimer: in the past I've been paid to do some work on the CRC highway mega-project by the rockin' Coalition for a Livable Future.

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    I have a question for you -

    Would you agree that all three candidates for Mayor, and most - if not all - of the "alternative plans" that have been publicly recognized agree that the current bridge needs upgrades to meet modern seismic safety standards?

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      Dislcaimer: My firm is employed by the Eileen Brady campaign.

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        Okay, long answer way of saying, "yes, everyone agrees the current I-5 bridge needs seismic upgrades."

        Two weeks ago I met with one of the leaders of the Oregon Section of Civil Engineers and he said "even a medium seismic event could bring the current I-5 bridge down."

        Given the agreement on that reality it seems we want that work done as quickly as possible.

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            I didn't ask which bridge is the most unsafe. That would actually be the Sellwood Bridge.

            I asked if you agreed that there is universal agreement that the current I-5 bridge does NOT meet modern seismic safety standards.

            I've sat through several alternative plan presentations and all of them start with doing seismic upgrades on the current I-5 bridge.

            Are you suggesting that other candidates are opposed to seismic upgrades on the current I-5 bridge?

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              Getting the right answers starts with asking the right questions.

              Ask too narrow of a question, and you'll get a useless answer.

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          Jon, in the interest of disclosure, you're currently working for Eileen Brady, correct?

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    Eileen Brady is the only candidate willing to be honest about the CRC. I appreciate honesty. The other candidates want to have it both ways.

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    (let me get this out of the way: i work for Jon Isaacs' firm on the Brady campaign. what follows is my own opinion.)

    first, your representation of Eileen's VOIS statement is misleading: "Yes". she said a lot more than that, but you didn't seem to think that was worth noting. two important things to recognize in her statement. 1, her support of this CRC is contingent on it passing environmental muster. you & i agree that is not going to be easy; i suspect Eileen understands this as well. 2nd, she is calling for a "financially realistic option" and the CRC is anything but.

    at which point, her website statement is important. it's more than the single paragraph the VOIS format allows. much of what she states on her website is what many other CRC opponents have said (granted, not those who are saying "No way in hell, no bridge!"). as Mayor, Eileen's job will be to work to help solve the real problem: the horrible way we move bodies around the region.

    note: when she says we need a new bridge, she does not say it's to move cars. it's for safety, it's to move freight and it's to get workers on the job (something we are cheering the President for getting on the stump about). she also calls for a much smaller project, for getting light rail into Vancouver, for more active transportation, and -- critical to any discussion of the CRC but too often missing from this discussion -- some way to reduce the congestion around the Rose Quarter. by including that in the discussion of the CRC, she endorses the efforts of numerous CRC opponents on this front. including one Evan Manvel.

    in short, to say Eileen Brady supports the CRC is misleading to the point of being untrue. a more honest critique would focus on how carefully she hedges her bets on this issue. which, frankly, she has little option on. the CRC process has been a mess. the next mayor is inheriting a nasty can of worms. (Jefferson, for example, sets himself up as an opponent of labor on this, and he absolutely is no such thing. but that's what a clusterfrack the CRC has become.) the one thing Eileen does not hedge is her commitment to getting this done. her entire campaign is based on what is best for the entire city; i'm guessing that in the coming few years, as she goes thru this campaign and then takes office, her position on the CRC is going to evolve quite a bit. the issue makes that inevitable.

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    This article doesn't fully explain Charlie Hales' position, which he has outlined in detail. Charlie has not opposed the CRC, he has said that the current plan is not well thought out from a funding perspective. He has said a CRC is needed and he will support one that is fundable, reasonable and appropriate. His 20 years of infrastructure experience in public and private sectors will help assure Portland that we get a bridge, in the end, that is what we more and no less.

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    I agree with Hales that the CRC is not fundable at this point. The public has spent an enormous amount of money to determine what we already knew 15 years ago. And without support from Vancouver et al for light rail, it's fruitless. We should have been shovel ready for the stimulus money, but the lack of an ability to agree and lack of real leadership has created yet another missed opportunity.

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    Having had the conversation with Eileen about this project I appreciate that she is looking at the issue from multiple angles and is being honest about how we need to approach it. Being against the CRC is fine but when it comes to handling an issue like this I want a mayor who will get practical - Eileen is the only candidate I have seen display this quality.

    "We need pragmatic regional solutions for a purpose." John W. Gardner

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    Unfortunately, the continued overblown rhetoric around the CRC has prevented a sane discussion of its merits and faults. Posts like this only contribute to the toxic environment of the CRC discussion. That's too bad.

    I like that originally opponents called it the "12 lane megabridge." When that was debunked (actually six through-lanes, same as current bridge), the framing became "megaproject."

    I'm tired of the BS on both sides of this debate.

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        Love that lanes graphic you did, Spencer - and appreciate all the work you're doing to make this enormously complex project understandable.

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      Oops, my math is slightly off there. While I think it's accurate to say the whole CRC project is $800 million per mile ($3.6 billion / 4.5 miles), the portion of the CRC that is strictly freeway is $1,562,000,000. So that, divided by the 4 miles of the CRC that is freeway, results in CRC freeway construction costing only (only!) $390 million per mile.

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    Evan--I would like to comment on a couple of points. First your response to Eileen Brady's acknowledgment of the $140m in sunk costs. By taking her comment out of context, you actually change her argument. In such a nuanced and complex issue, context is absolutely critical.

    The prior sentence says: But doing that would set us back years because we would have to start the whole federal permitting process over again from scratch. In other words, while we have invested $140m in the CRC project to date, there are significant opportunity costs to starting the process over again.

    The second comment I want to make is about the value of action over words. While you laud Jefferson Smith's willingness to stand up for the climate crisis, you fail to mention that he is not one of the 20 legislators that have signed a letter to the members of the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development Committeelast March, asking for information on many aspects of the project, including projected interest costs, traffic projections used by project staff, tolling estimates and potential cost overruns. As the one member of the mayoral race who is actually in a position to do something about the CRC, I wonder why he chose not to sign the letter? Is it because his mind is made up? If so, that is of great concern to me. I think a responsible legislator (and mayor) needs to keep his/her mind open to all the factual arguments, regardless of whether those facts might make one retract or revise previous statements.

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    Evan, I must admit you have swayed me on the importance of the Portland Mayor's race on the CRC issue. It would be awesome if the mayoral election was seen as a referendum on the CRC.

    That said, I don't believe they are the true power brokers in this battle and I'm concerned we in the advocate/activist community don't have a workable plan to confront the folks really turning the key here: the governors, the state legislatures and the state DOT's.

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