All the CRC Megaproject News Fit to Print

Evan Manvel

Time for another round-up of recent news about the most expensive public works project in the region’s history – the extremely risky and costly CRC highway mega-project (previous round-up here). Without further ado, here are some excerpts from the past seven weeks of news:

On July 26 The Columbian reported on all the hurdles of actually finding the funding for the CRC.

A lot of hope, but not a lot of solid plans. They’re not sure where the money’s coming from. Washington has just convened the “Connecting Washington Task Force” to review statewide transportation needs, recommend the most promising projects for investment and identify potential revenue sources. Oregon isn’t at that point yet. Yet the CRC’s plans assume both states will have their plans ready by June 2013. Washington Senate Transportation Chairwoman Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, called those goals "ambitious... I don’t think its going to happen as rapidly as people would like it to do,” she said.

“I don’t think there is a clear definition of how the financing will work,” [Oregon State Rep. Tobias] Read said.

The article also highlighted Congresswoman Jamie Hererra Beutler (R-Camas) may not support the project, pending a local vote on light rail.

On July 27 the Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss explained the critical role Vancouver voters will play in approving sales tax increases in two separate votes over the next year and a half. “Without the locals’ show of support, the feds would likely turn down the project’s request for light-rail money, $850 million.”

On August 7 Tim Fought at the AP wrote the debt deal may kill the CRC, "One casualty of the coming federal budget crunch could be [the CRC highway megaproject]. At best, its sponsors acknowledge, the... project is going to take another whack,” while quoting Rep. DeFazio as saying the outlook for transportation funding is “very, very, very, very grim."

On August 7 Tom Buchele, an attorney and law professor and Lewis and Clark Law School, outlined what he called fatal flaws of the project in The Columbian, including hinting at lawsuits to come over problems in the project’s Environmental Impact Statement and pointing out outside reviews have upheld critics' concerns.

On August 7 The Columbian reported the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (Clark County’s MPO) “has worries over the equity of the financing plan — which currently calls for a three-way split between the federal government, Oregon and Washington, and local tolling — saying it is ‘not supportive’ of any changes to the CRC’s plans that would ‘further burden local project users.’ [i.e. increased toll rates.]”

On August 11 Streetsblog DC reported the federal gas tax may be Grover Norquist’s next tax to attack.

On August 11, the Northwest Progressive Institute released an analysis arguing Tim Eyman’s Washington initiative could knock 11% off the revenue for the 520 bridge (and by extension, a similar amount off the CRC), as well as necessitating a supplemental environmental analysis.

On August 11, Joe Cortright and others testified to Metro about the host of problems with the project. Some key excerpts from Cortright’s testimony:

“The CRC has already failed to meet its own deadlines for applying for state funding. The project's draft finance plan dated September 2010, indicated that the project would seek state legislative funding [from both Oregon and Washington] in the 2011 session. The official project schedule, dated May 31, 2011, also indicates that state funding approval would be obtained in 2011...

“The combined effect of all of these factors—a looming deficit in the Highway Trust Fund, the exclusion of earmarks from transportation reauthorization in both the Senate and House, pressure to further reduce spending to comply with the debt limit extension agreement—all mean that federal funding of $400 million, over and above current federal highway funds flowing to the region, is highly unlikely.”

“None of the major sources of construction funding— toll-backed revenue bonds, state appropriations from Oregon and Washington, and federal highway and transit funds have been obtained. The financial and political environment is now more constrained than ever: both Oregon and Washington have heavily leveraged their existing transportation funds, and are experiencing revenue shortfalls due to lower levels of driving and higher fuel efficiency.”

On August 12 the Portland Business Journal quoted Congressman Blumenauer on getting ready for “devastating” federal cuts that may affect the CRC. ODOT’s spokesperson shrugged off the worry.

On August 24 The Oregonian reported Green Scissors, a report issued by a coalition of groups including Public Citizen, The Heartland Institute, Taxpayers for Common Sense, and Friends of the Earth, recommended cutting funding for the CRC, putting it alongside subsidies for oil, coal, and tar sands as part of $380 billion of programs that are wasteful, environmentally harmful, and unnecessary. Per the report: “The list of cuts is long, and tackling them will require taking on rich, powerful corporations and special interest groups.”

On August 25 The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes reported Rep. Brad Witt and Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian both promised the Oregon State Building Trades Council they would push hard to build the CRC.

On August 25 The Seattle Post-Intelligencer explained Tim Eyman’s Washington initiative to limit variable tolling (set for the November 2011 ballot) could impact the CRC. “[S]tate officials say I-1125 could be disastrous for several major infrastructure projects, including 520 and a new multi-billion dollar I-5 Columbia River Crossing.”

On August 25, in news I don't think was reported, Metro’s order to integrate the CRC into its plans (as part - I kid you not - of the South-North Light Rail Project) was appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals by several businesses impacted by the CRC as well as by community advocates including the Coalition for a Livable Future.

On August 30 The Columbian reported the project said it would take two years longer to complete than previously thought, adding tens of millions of dollars to its costs.

On September 7 Nigel Jaquiss of the Willamette Week called out the project for claiming millions in savings it had already claimed.

“The people running the Columbia River Crossing project veered into Orwellian territory last week when they announced they had found $100 million in savings that could be cut from the cost of the giant freeway bridge project... But here’s what made this ‘news’ weird: CRC officials had already announced the same savings last April—only to repackage the news with a straight face last week.”

On September 8 the Metro Council voted 5-0 to move the project forward, with President Tom Hughes saying “I think we’re ready to go.”

Here's an excerpt of blistering testimony from Joe Cortright urging them not to make that decision:

"The CRC’s funding strategy is tantamount to 'bait and switch': advocates tell everyone that the federal money for the CRC will come from a 'special pot' of earmarks that won’t compete with other local projects... when this doesn’t materialize, they will seek funding from all of the other sources of funds listed in the FEIS... this will reduce the amount of money available for other projects in the region. Because the CRC is such a large project with a high risk of cost overruns, and because it faces revenue shortfalls from other funding sources, it would likely be a drain on the region’s transportation financing capacity the next decade."

On September 8 The Seattle Times covered a study finding that for the [Washington] Highway 520 floating bridge "tolls.. would cut traffic in half, according to a state financial study released Thursday. Traffic next year would drop to 52,000 vehicles per day as drivers divert to Interstate 90, avoid trips or shift to transit, according to an "investment-grade" study by Wilbur Smith Associates.”

Reactions in The Columbian focused on the unknown impacts on the CRC from tolling, including the thought much of the traffic may shift to the I-205 bridge. Project backers downplay that concern.

ODOT’s own reports on this have been clear: “Existing models are not able to determine how travelers would change their mode, route, travel time, or destination in response to tolling/pricing.”

On September 13 the U.S. House passed a six-month extension of the national transportation spending package. Rep. Peter DeFazio said this: “at the current levels of investment, we’re not even keeping up with our mid-20th century surface transportation system. Just think, before the interstate highways, what a disconnected country this was! And guess what, we’re headed back there. We are not investing enough to maintain the Eisenhower legacy of the national highway system.”

Yesterday Rep. Jefferson Smith became the first Portland mayoral candidate who doesn't split hairs in his opposition to the CRC. From his web site: “It’s no secret that I have been a critic of the Columbia River Crossing. Going forward, we need projects that match our values and that we can afford.”

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    Disclaimer: I've done some paid work on the CRC issue for the Coalition for a Livable Future. I speak only for myself.

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    Evan, Thanks for the post. I appreciate your periodic rundown of the project's news and developments.

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    And today, this...

    Columbia River Crossing finances offers a September surprise: $147 million more from Oregon, Washington

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