The Chaos Continues on the Costly, Risky CRC MegaProject

Evan Manvel

Bruender: “Our neighborhoods will be heavily impacted by the proposed changes to I-5. We already have unacceptably high asthma rates. Our residents can’t afford the additional traffic and pollution this project will bring.”

The news continues to pour in on the most expensive public works project in the region’s history - the extremely costly, risky CRC highway mega-project.

Briefly mentioned in my previous wrap-up, today’s Oregonian covers the land use appeal filed by the Coalition for a Livable Future (CLF), the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods (NECN), and various impacted businesses, including Plaid Pantries, Taco Bell and Burger King.

NECN’s George Bruender notes the stakes: “Our neighborhoods will be heavily impacted by the proposed changes to I-5. We already have unacceptably high asthma rates. Our residents can’t afford the additional traffic and pollution this project will bring.”

CLF’s Mara Gross argues, “This project is very risky. We shouldn’t gamble by skipping the steps provided by Oregon’s land use process.”

The case, which will be presented for CLF and NECN by former Sen. Bob Shoemaker tomorrow at the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), argues the CRC highway mega-project is not the South-North light rail project, and shouldn’t use the fast-tracking process set up for the latter. Metro responds the 1996 South-North statute’s language is “quite generous and broad,” with loopholes broad enough to push through a multi-billion-dollar, five-mile long highway expansion. Should be an interesting day at LUBA. The article also hints at future lawsuits over the recently released Final Environmental Impact Statement.

In other news, this Sunday Jeff Manning at The Oregonian had this compelling piece on the CRC’s impacts to Hayden Island:

The existing freeway will be replaced by a 17-lane behemoth that will stand up to 45-feet high and 450-feet-wide. The CRC estimates the Hayden Island interchange will take more than five years to build. Early estimates put the cost at between $575 million and $650 million, making it the single most expensive element in the five-mile $3.1 billion project other than the new Columbia River bridges.

In addition to the 35 floating homes in harm's way, 39 businesses, including the one full-service grocery store and pharmacy [Safeway], are slated for acquisition and demolition... By the CRC's own reckoning, the 39 businesses slated for demolition employ more than 600 people.

The Independent Review Panel picked [editor's note: by the pro-CRC governors] in 2010 to evaluate CRC plans said the [those who proposed removing the Hayden Island interchange] had a point. “from a system perspective as well as design challenge, [the Hayden interchange] may warrant consideration for removal... the impacts on the island can be greatly reduced; and freeway operations potentially improved as well.”

Apparently that didn’t go over well with mall owners, who demanded the mega-project include the $600+ million interchange for them, promising to spend $32 million to rebuild Jantzen Beach (you do the math). Others, including some Hayden Island residents and Metro Council candidate Bob Stacey, have called for a much more affordable local access bridge, which would improve safety and traffic flow and reduce the number of businesses and homes needing to be condemned.

On September 15, The Oregonian reported the CRC project revealed Oregon and Washington will be asked to contribute an additional $147 million. While the previous back-of-the-napkin financing plan had expected each state to pony up $450 million, the Final Environmental Impact Statement zeroes out the $147 million states have given so far, and expects an additional $900 million. To steal a Facebook witticism, this reminds one of Darth Vader telling Lando Calrissian: “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

On September 17, Jeff Mapes at the Oregonian reported Sen. Suzanne Bonamici and Rob Cornilles joined Brad Avakian and Brad Witt in supporting the mega-project. Mapes summarizes: “the candidates publicly talk about the project in ‘just do it’ tones.” The candidates seem to portray the issue as one simply needing a strong advocate.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, who has been in Congress for 25 years and serves as the House’s ranking member on the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit, may be a little more of an expert on what to expect from Congress. He’s repeatedly said the outlook for transportation funding is “very, very, very, very grim.” For years DeFazio has asked project backers to scale back the project to conform with economic reality, with little success. Fiscal reality apparently doesn’t sell as well as big promises.

To conclude this summary, a tangentially related story. The Oregonian’s editorial board, which has published more than two dozen pro-CRC editorials, published their editorial full of questions about the Oregon Sustainability Center on Sunday. They wrote:

Big unknowns still dog an Oregon Sustainability Center... An original, promising venture might not ever get built because its sponsors … do not quite have their act together.... A legislative committee was sufficiently agog ... that it withheld $37 million in bonds...

The request for information – a detailed business model, commitments to tenancy, price-per-square foot rental rates – was fulfilled and delivered recently...

Plainly, some things remain unclear... the city could face a $250,000-a-year hit to its general fund if anticipated tenants in the center don't or can't honor their leases. That means Portland taxpayers would be on the hook...

The sponsors and their many collaborators... need to get on the same page arguing the same case for the same reasons over the same time frame. This is not merely for political cohesion. It’s for the mapped, operational clarity the public deserves on a potentially risky project in a dollar-short economy.

The parallels with the Columbia River Crossing highway mega-project are clear. Both are potentially risky projects in a dollar-short economy. Both have found skeptics in the legislature when asking for funding. Both put taxpayers at risk if the projected income falls short. With both, “some things remain unclear,” including the time frame.

Yet the contrasts are stark. The Sustainability Center will cost $62 million, the CRC highway mega-project more than sixty times that (CRC planning, analysis, lobbying, and PR has already consumed more than twice the Center’s total cost). The risks to taxpayers are in the six or seven figures for the Sustainability Center, but in the nine or ten figures for the CRC. The Sustainability Center produced a detailed business model and commitments to tenancy, whereas the CRC lurches forward on constantly-shifting financial plans that move hundreds of millions of dollars around while admitting its models can’t predict usage of the facility (and therefore tolling income, roughly a third of the budget).

On one project, the public deserves “mapped, operational clarity,” while on the magnitudes-more expensive and riskier project, it’s damn the torpedoes, cross your fingers, and pour out the billions of dollars.

UPDATE: I forgot to include a link to this recent news story in the Oregonian highlighting a big lawsuit involving ODOT's current biggest construction project, US 20 between Corvallis and the coast. ODOT has missed two completion dates, the project is more than 100% over budget (at $234 million, when the original budget was $110 million), and there's no end in sight.

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    I think we can be pretty certain that the light rail bridge is included in the CRC for just two reasons: (1) so they can make use of that "quite generous and broad" loophole to get around actually studying the land use problems the CRC will create and (2) to try to disarm environmental critics who, pretty much to a man/woman, support light rail wholeheartedly and have been trying to get it over the Columbia to Vancouver for a couple of decades now.

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    Why do OR-1 candidates support CRC? CRC suporters write bigger contribution checks than CRC opponents.

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    "In addition to the 35 floating homes in harm's way, 39 businesses, including the one full-service grocery store and pharmacy [Safeway], are slated for acquisition and demolition... By the CRC's own reckoning, the 39 businesses slated for demolition employ more than 600 people"...not to mention the other 1500-2000 people who live on the island.

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    Normally, I hate tolls. However in this case, I would suggest that we start tolling the current bridge immediately and put the proceeds in one of Al Gore's "lockboxes" for future bridge construction.

    As was the case with the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, you would see an immediate drop in bridge traffic, and reduce the future borrowing costs. Save up some money before you spend it. What a novel idea.

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    As someone who both lives and works in Vancouver, I would offer my two cents worth. On the whole, Clark County commuters want to get to their jobs quickly and efficiently, and for the most part they want to do so in single occupancy vehicles. They are generally uninterested in Portland's or Metro's or Oregon's perspective on all this. You could argue that if they cared about Progressive values and strong land use controls, they would not have moved to Washington in the first place, but whatever.

    Even though the Portland Metro population greatly outnumbers Clark County's population, I think Clark County and Washington State get an equal vote on these decisions, due to Patty Murray's power in the Senate if nothing else. Add Senator Murray's power to the Labor lobby and I think the project will be built, for better or for worse.

    Spending 600 million on a Jantzen Beach off ramp is a gross waste of money, but that is due to the political influence of the Jantzen Beach owners - and they are on your side of the border so arguably they are your problem / responsibility.

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      However, Gregory (as you probably already know), the CRC will do nothing to get your Clark County commuters their "quick and efficient SOV commute". Instead of being stacked up at the Interstate bridge, they'll be stacked up somewhere between the Rose Quarter and Delta Park, with no significant difference in commute time at all.

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        Exactly. Why should Oregonians subsidize Washington residents' environmentally unsound choices with our tax dollars? Build a light-rail bridge for people who want to commute. Help BNSF upgrade the rail bridge to enhance freight traffic throughput. Worst-case? We get more Oregon jobs open to Oregonians.

        Democratic candidates for OR-1 are going to have a tough case to make as to why they support this bridge to the 1950s. We need our Congress-critters to look forward, not back, and to act in the best interests of the entire State, not its monied interests. I'm disappointed to hear Patty Murray supports it--I'm used to more common sense from her, but I guess money talks, and very few are uncorruptible.

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      I think it's safe to say that Oregon and Portland Metro voters are just as uninterested in the perspective of Clark County residents. The idea that Oregon taxpayers should share the cost of Clark county residents commuting to work is pretty galling. And no, the standing of Clark County does not equal that of Portland metro in this debate. Clark County doesn't get much love from Olympia, whereas Portland gets a great deal of attention from Salem. Both states have equal votes, yes, but Clark County has much less sway than Portland does.

      Fact is, Clark County residents are the only ones who really feel the pain of the current bridge. If there was no bridge at all, most Portland residents would hardly notice.

      Plus, the equal vote doesn't really matter, because any of the players here can veto the project. If Oregon doesn't approve the deal, it's dead. Congress isn't going to pony up unless we all play nice together (maybe not even then).

      My advice to Clark County residents unhappy with progress:

      -move to Oregon

      -try swimming to work

      -make the deal more fair by taxing Clark County residents to help fund the commutes of Portland residents

      -bite your tongues and go along with whatever Portland wants for the bridge.

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    If the issue is really about moving freight and goods north/south on I-5 then the CRC is not the answer. It is a very, very expensive public works project. Re-routing truck traffic away from the downtown Portland Core (unless delivering or taking from the container yards) may be a better choice.

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