If the $450+ million Oregon contribution to the CRC mega-project seems significant, just wait until we're forced to spend an additional $1,300 million.
Last week the Washington State Legislature had its first oversight committee hearing on the costly, risky CRC highway mega-project.
While the hearing was uneven and unapologetically one-sided (pro-CRC), legislators raised some key issues, including the Coast Guard bridge height boondoggle, the lack of funding, and the fact the most expensive project in the region’s history moves southbound congestion to a bottleneck two miles south of the bridge.
This last point is critical. A decade ago Robert Liberty and others warned of this obvious problem – many lanes shrinking down to few lanes is a recipe for huge congestion in the heart of North Portland. The CRC’s own models show that congestion, and its hand-picked “Independent” Review Panel agreed in 2010:
“Questions about the reasonableness of investment in the CRC bridge because unresolved issues remain to the south [near 405 and the Rose Quarter] threaten the viability of the project.”
Cognitive Dissonance and Fiscal Realities
In the video, ODOT Director Matt Garrett reels off a long list of areas of I-5 traffic congestion: the Rose Quarter, Terwilliger curves, Wilsonville’s Boone Bridge. And Washington State’s long-term transportation plan includes this $195 million doozy, which seems to argue the CRC mega-project will make congestion worse:
“SR 14/I-5 to I-205 - Add Lanes and Rebuild Structures... without improvements, peak hour speeds on most segments of this corridor will be lower than 60% of posted speed. . . This project is a response to the congestion in the future, especially after completion of the Columbia River Crossing project.”
What’s the solution to current problems and expected induced traffic exacerbating those problems? Garrett: “I would submit to you that we just continue the conversation.”
Unfortunately for Oregon's taxpayers, that's a $1.3 billion "conversation" for just the Rose Quarter expansion - and Washington state won't be chipping in, nor will the project be able to claim it's of "national significance" for federal funds. If the $450+ million Oregon contribution to the CRC mega-project seems significant, just wait until it forces us to spend an additional $1,300 million.
Rep. Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver) pushed for an actual answer to how the problem would be fixed. Garrett responded, “We don’t have a whole lot of funding.”
That’s an understatement, as Garrett’s alter ego explained in his presentation to the Oregon House Transportation Committee. Revenues are falling, costs increasing, and maintenance needs skyrocketing. ODOT says Oregon is $1.3 billion a year short of revenue to maintain steady-state, and there’s a huge cost bubble just around the bend.
At that hearing, Garrett argued, “this is just a fiscal reality. And it demands we pivot.” Yet when faced with the question of continuing to push forward a highway boondoggle that won’t solve the problem, ODOT refuses to pivot.
Representative Ann Rivers (R-La Center) gets it. “What you’re saying sounds a little bit like ‘free beer all day tomorrow’... we’re rushing people through the bridge only to have them stop dead not very far away.” Garrett simply replied, “Appreciate your thoughts.”
Construction Start Date Pushed Back Again, Still Two Years Away
Also of note at the hearing: the wishful construction start date for the CRC is being pushed back. Again.
From The Columbian’s editorial board, who gave the news “jeers”:
This week the state’s deputy transportation secretary, David Dye, confirmed that once again major construction on the project was two years away. That’s the same thing that was said in 2008, and in 2010. The reality is that significant issues, including the height of the finished span above the water, still remain. Dye also pointed toward “funding realities.”
More Funding Uncertainty on Tolls
Last Wednesday Willamette Week highlighted even more uncertainty around tolling revenue, which is meant to compose one-third of the mega-project’s funding. After seeing traffic drop by a third after tolling the SR 520 bridge in Seattle, the Sightline Institute’s Clark Williams-Derry argued the CRC is “flying blind” on tolls.
Hopefully the media will continue to highlight the panoply of problems with the boondoggle, as the Departments of Transportation seem unable or unwilling to admit them.
That active fourth estate, combined with an informed and vocal public speaking out to our elected officials, may save us from scarring the region with this dysfunctional mega-highway for generations to come.
Otherwise, we’ll have spent over four billion dollars for a beer that will get here, well, tomorrow.
Disclaimer: I've done some paid work on the CRC mega-highway issue for the Coalition for a Livable Future. I speak only for myself.