Smith, Hales, and the Costly, Risky CRC Mega-Highway Boondoggle

Evan Manvel

I’ve loved Nigel Jaquiss’ ongoing evisceration of the CRC mega-highway boondoggle and his documentation of the flood of falsehoods pushed by CRC backers. But his recent Willamette Week article on where the mayoral candidates stand on the Columbia River Crossing simply missed the boat.

Jaquiss quotes the candidates’ answers to the Portland Business Alliance questionnaire. Both candidates understand the current design isn’t affordable. Both candidates want to do something to address the problems at hand. But of course virtually everyone, from the CRC to its strong opponents, says the project’s design is too expensive and the problems in the area should be addressed.

I wish that Jaquiss was right – that the candidates aren’t that far apart on this issue. But he’s wrong.

Remember: Jefferson Smith used his valuable television time in the primary to talk about how refusing to support the $4 billion CRC mega-highway was a matter of priorities, and talked about walking away from the big-pocketed interests backing it. He has been willing to trade his aspiration of being mayor for taking the right stance on this issue. And it’s cost him lots of endorsements.

At an event last October, 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.”

In contrast, while Hales is saying he’s against the current plan, here’s what he said to Populations TV last October:

“If the strategy of this region is to move this project forward, I’ll help. And I won’t try to substitute my judgment for the work that’s been done.”

In short, Jefferson has been a vocal leader in the fight against the CRC boondoggle – arguing it is simply not our top priority and there are smarter solutions.

Hales has been looking for a way out, trying to be all things to all people. As the Willamette Week argued in its primary profile of Hales, some think that’s his character. Randy Leonard calls him “an opportunist.”

While Hales has been trying to catch up to Jefferson’s leadership on this issue in public, he has been privately courting the building trades. The Hales campaign doesn’t seem inclined to release their secret tapes from those interviews, but one wonders exactly what Charlie told the carpenters’ union to differentiate him from the strongly pro-labor Jefferson. In announcing its endorsement, the union cited Hales’ “Support of the Columbia Crossing” as a leading reason for backing him.

Granted, the answers the candidates gave the Portland Business Alliance - the "evidence" cited by the Willamette Week - are written in campaign speak. But Hales says, “I do believe we can get to that pragmatic version of the project quickly and get it out of the planning phase and into construction.” Hales then talks about moving a more affordable project forward. That’s also what the CRC’s high-priced consultants have been saying – that they’re making the project more affordable so we can move it forward. The framing is the same. Whether the exact plans are or not, I can’t say. In the primary, Hales promised at a union forum he’d move “a version of that project” forward in his first year in office.

The CRC lobbyists are hoping to start building some part of the project, and then, in the style of Robert Moses or Boston’s Big Dig, have average people demand that we finish what we started, whatever the cost. Given Hales’ stated desire to break ground immediately, that may fit well with the CRC’s ultimate goals.

In contrast, Jefferson’s answer to the Portland Business Alliance clearly rejects the current project. He points out the holes in the CRC-backers’ case by bringing up the Rose Quarter bottleneck and the subsidizing of Clark County sprawl. He talks up the Common Sense Alternative – which is a distinct split from the project, rather than a minor modification.

The Common Sense Alternative was explicitly rejected by the CRC. The Common Sense Alternative is phase-able and much more affordable, and focuses more on choices, freight, and safety than five miles of mega-highway expansion. Jefferson also goes out of his way to mention the CRC in question 15 – saying “We need to keep up with basic maintenance and address hazardous roads. I'll prioritize that over mega-projects like the CRC.”

The two candidates are clearly very different on the CRC – even on the PBA questionnaire cited as evidence to the contrary.

Those who are most closely following this issue get it. All the environmental groups have backed Smith – the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, Sierra Club, and Bike Walk Vote. Nearly all the anti-CRC community leaders agree, and have raised money for Jefferson. Amusingly The Business Journal’s Andy Geigrich tried to be even-handed by comparing the endorsements of three environmental groups – who represent thousands of Portlanders – to two individuals backing Hales.

Again, Jefferson has framed his campaign around being willing to stand up to the mega-highway, while Hales has been quietly trying to not lose anti-CRC votes while meeting with CRC backers and convincing them he supports the project.

Which mayor Portlanders elect could mean the difference between seeing a new vision and investments that meet our needs, or seeing a slightly changed highway mega-project that scars our city while dominating our next 30 years of transportation funding.

I’ve spent years of my life trying to protect the Portland I love from the most expensive mega-highway project in the region’s history. I’ve talked directly to each candidate about it, including some confidential conversations I won’t reveal.

For me, there's a clear choice to lead us forward.

And that choice is Jefferson Smith.

Disclaimers: I’ve worked for OLCV, served as co-chair of Bike Walk Vote, and did contract work on this issue for CLF. And yes, I’m now split between Washington and Oregon. The traffic in Seattle is a lot worse than in Portland, despite what the CRC’s high-priced consultants and spinmeisters tell you. I speak only for myself.

  • (Show?)

    Evan, great article, and thanks for including the CSA animation. Really glad it's helping get Jim Howell and George Crandall's very civic-minded and pragmatic ideas out there.

    Seriously wish I could find the time to do more with this stuff. The feedback I get is that a more concise presentation of the CSA would be welcome, and there are more ideas that need sharing.

    For instance, after the Coast Guard said the CRC was too low, Jim asked that I make a little follow-up to the CSA video showing off another idea he had: a new bridge that would run parallel to the current bridge, but unlike the arterial shown in the CSA video, this new bridge would have a drawbridge aligned with the current lift span. Allowing river freight up to 179 feet (the max height of the current lift span) to go through, instead of being constrained by the CRC's what, 96 feet?

    Of course that would be another stoplight on a freeway, which is apparently an affront to all that is good and right in the world. I've really started wondering how all this angst over a stoplight gets taken seriously. We have lift bridges over the Willamette, with stoplights, and we have to stop for freight trains down by Water ave. Occasionally having to stop - even sometimes for extended periods - is just part of getting around the city (or the country, or the burbs). This notion that a special class of infrastructure can be designed such that its users never have to stop is one of the weird, illusory promises of freeways, and the Interstate Highway System as a whole. (Illusory because as soon as you inject an interstate highway into a city with any kind of activity happening, that highway tends to clog up real fast.)

    Former Vancouver B.C. commissioner Gordon Price says the stoplight you encounter as I-5 ends at the Vancouver city limits is a good thing for his city, and that we should be proud of our freeway stoplight; I think he's on to something there.

  • (Show?)

    Evan, a suggestion: Add "unhealthy" to your list of adjectives. We need to shift the debate purely off of economic interests.

    Thanks for clarifying this candidate difference. It's one that matters to me as I try to decide whether to vote for mayor between two candidates I don't really trust.

    On Jeff being "pro-labor," well, yes, except when he isn't like suggesting using inexperienced volunteer labor to replace public workers in filling potholes. There are reasons the unions are divided in endorsements and they aren't all over CRC or even public vs. private sector.

    • (Show?)

      Well, he has that union's support, actually.

      I would say they actually ARE divided almost entirely over CRC, with the exception of SEIU. If CRC isn't an issue for the union, they back Jeff.

  • (Show?)

    Smith has been out front on the CRC boondoggle, risking the ire of many groups that usually support Democrats. Political courage on big decisions is rare and should be rewarded by Portland's voters.

  • (Show?)

    Can someone please explain how the Mayor of Portland has any ACTUAL say in whether we go forward with the CRC? A vote? Funding? Anything? Cause I haven't seen it.

    I get that it's an important issue that a mayoral candidate should weigh in on but we seem to go back to this issue again and again in this race.

    Wouldn't our time and questions be better spent asking State Leg candidates their position on this?

  • (Show?)

    Jeremy - as I wrote when I first wrote about the mayoral candidates:

    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.

    There may be a supplemental EIS, which I think the City would have to sign off on, etc.

    This is the most expensive project in the region's history, and will impact the next 100 years of the city.

    That said, yes, legislators will make the next key decision on this. Continue to ask questions and put pressure on them.

  • (Show?)

    Jeremy: The City has signed off on the project, yes, but the project needs the City to go ahead. It needs PDOT to continue to work with ODOT. The Hayden Island and Marine Drive intersections are huge and expensive parts of this project that are in the City Limits. The City has done a bogus plan for Hayden Island that has changed radically because of the state. A Mayor could lead us toward the Common Sense Alternative. Keep up the great work you do on this issue Evan. The vote on light rail operating funds in Vancouver, ignored as it has been by the press, may bring the project to a halt, and then the City would have to be deeply involved in what happens next. The law suit filed in federal court by Coalition for a Livable Future, the North-NE Neighborhood Coalition (12 neighborhood associations)and the Environmental Defense Fund is another potential stumbling block for the CRC. I guess you won't read about that in The Oregonian either.


connect with blueoregon