CRC Facts: New report urges legislature to oppose "Oregon Only" plan

John Calhoun

Based upon the CDM Smith report, the number of vehicles crossing the new bridge in 2036 will be lower than cross the current bridge today. So after spending at least $2.8 billion—and possibly much more—we will handle no additional traffic.

A new report released today, CRC Facts, summarizes available information on the Columbia River Crossing proposal and urges the legislature to vote against the current “Oregon Only” option. The report was drafted under the leadership of 1000 Friends of Oregon and is being supported by a coalition of organizations and individuals concerned about the issues raised by the report. The report is available at www.friends.org/crc-facts.

The fundamental question facing the legislature is the risk to the taxpayers of Oregon of going alone on a project of this size. While the latest Investment Grade Analysis of tolling by CDM Smith shows that the tolls could pay for the bridge if there are no glitches, projects of this size invariably come with a host of glitches.

  • The typical large construction project exceeds the original budget by over 30%. In this case that would amount to roughly one billion dollars. In Oregon, several recent projects have exceeded budget by more than twice the original estimate. ODOT’s largest current project – the Pioneer Mountain - Edyville highway realignment on Highway 20 – is currently on track to be delivered seven years late and nearly $300 million above the original budget of $110 million. The Grand Avenue Viaduct increased from $31 million to $98 million; Newberg-Dundee Bypass increased from $222 million to $752 million.

  • Federal funding is not guaranteed and could easily be less than budgeted given current legislative constraints and competition from other states in the face of out-right opposition or non-support from the Washington State delegation.

  • The tolling assumptions are just that – assumptions. While CDM Smith could be right or even conservative, in a response to a request for information on another tolling project they denied any "'optimism bias' in their forecasts citing 22 new start-up toll facilities opened since 1995 saying 10 had revenues above those Smith forecast to 12 below forecast, with 19 of the 22 coming within 75% and only 3 more than 25% low." Thus there is a major risk that toll revenues will be less than forecast, which could increase the harm to Oregon taxpayers and to our statewide transportation budget

  • Treasurer Ted Wheeler has expressed his concern about the ability of Oregon to collect the tolls in Washington on an Oregon-only plan. While drivers who sign up for transponders will pay in advance, the project’s viability depends upon the ability to collect from other drivers based upon a license plate image tracking system. If Washington does not enforce collections the way they do with their own tolling, Oregon would not be able to successfully go after deadbeats. There is also the question of Oregon’s authority to set tolling rates as it sees necessary. While the Governor of Washington says we can, the Washington legislature says we cannot. A dispute like that will increase the cost of bonds due to increased risk and uncertainty.

On top of the risks to Oregon taxpayers, CRC Facts raises the question of what is accomplished in the end if we proceed with the current design. Based upon the CDM Smith report, the number of vehicles crossing the new bridge in 2036 will be lower than cross the current bridge today. So after spending at least $2.8 billion—and possibly much more—we will handle no additional traffic. At the same time because of tolling on I-5 and no tolling on I-205, there will be an extra 50,000 vehicles per day on the I-205 bridge when it opens in 2022 creating more gridlock there than we have today on I-5. In addition, most of those vehicles will travel on I-84 or side streets making east-west travel more difficult and time consuming. While this project has been pushed by the Port of Portland as a way to reduce shipping times at the sea port, it will make access to the airport more difficult for both goods and travelers.

Lastly the Oregon legislature needs to ask why it should take on the burden of this project alone when the vast majority of the traffic—as much as two-thirds, according to the state’s latest numbers—will be sourced from Washington State, a state 50% bigger than Oregon in population and even richer in financial resources.

There are alternatives to the Oregon Only plan. The legislature should stop this project and pursue other lower cost options that could gain acceptance by the Washington legislature and that don’t pose such a huge risk to Oregon’s taxpayers, environment, and quality of life.

Many legislators don’t like the Oregon-only plan but they are being pushed to support it by an army of lobbyists, the Governor, and their leadership. The only voices opposing it are individuals and small organizations that do not have the equivalent army of lobbyists. It is important that they hear from the grassroots on this so if you agree that the Oregon-only plan is a bridge too far, please let your legislators know in the next few weeks.

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