Actual Oversight, or CRC Whitewash?

Evan Manvel

Legislators should bring in independent experts, and gain from the experiences of others before signing off on the $4,000,000,000+ risk of the CRC. That's simply responsible governance.

As Portland’s local leaders have turned to begging Santa Claus for transportation dollars, the costly, risky, go-it-alone CRC mega-project continues to blow through nearly a million dollars a month.

Oregon’s legislative leaders have named a committee on the Columbia River Crossing mega-project, allegedly to provide oversight. That committee has yet to meet.

Oversight is critical; by most accounts this would be the most expensive public works project in Oregon history.

Yet much of the oversight thus far has relied heavily on testimony from people trying to build the boondoggle. These high-priced lobbyists and government employees work for contractors or the governors, and have incentives to gloss over core problems with the mega-project rather than provide accurate information.

What should legislative oversight look like?

The oversight committee should strive to get clear, credible answers to key questions, gathering information to supplement the millions of dollars spent by lobbyists and project backers. Legislators should bring in independent experts, and gain from the experiences of others before signing off on the $4,000,000,000+ risk of the CRC. That's simply responsible governance.

Some possible witnesses:

Mega-Project Experience

Financing

ODOT’s Data and Priorities

Other

How will we know the oversight process is a whitewash instead?

First, despite the mega-project’s enormity, it will bypass standard checks and balances. In the past, the mega-project got special privilege to avoid the Ways and Means Committee, even though expenditures of over $50,000 are standardly referred to that committee for review. The CRC’s cost is roughly eighty thousand times larger than that cut-off level, and should require more, not less, committee review. Nor have the project’s projections of income or expenses received independent review from the Legislative Fiscal Office or Legislative Revenue Office, despite billions of dollars being at stake.

Second, it will be rushed. While we’ve had CRC hearings, the mega-project has completely changed since Washington state – a supposed co-equal partner – has withdrawn, creating heaps of legal, financial, engineering, and ethical questions that require credible answers, joining long-unanswered questions from legislators.

Third, it will be a dog-and-pony show from mega-project backers, with political faces. CRC backers have shown a remarkable aversion to the truth and clear answers. Most recently, they struggled trying to explain how their claim that states needed to fund this in 2013 or it wouldn’t happen for a decade wasn’t a complete lie. Before that, they were inflating job numbers ten-fold, exaggerating safety issues, downplaying the cost, overstating the benefits, pretending ODOT was competent at mega-projects, and even outright disappearing findings from ODOT that the current bridge spans have 55 years of life in them.

Fourth, it will stack the deck, like past hearings. Hearings to this point have mainly been project proponents talking to fill the time, dodging tough questions and providing non-answers. The few times critics are given time, they have mostly been given two or three minutes each, at times sandwiched by CRC lobbyists with unlimited time.

This is the most expensive mega-project in Oregon history. Legislators must step up and go beyond the talking points they are getting from high-priced lobbyists and the questionable information from government employees who are tasked with building the boondoggle.

Legislators, do your oversight, and show you can learn from history and the failures of others. Do us proud.

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