Behind the CRC Boondoggle: How We Got Here

Evan Manvel

This spring the Oregon legislature created an oversight committee on the Columbia River Crossing, deciding a project of this scale and expense warranted a closer look. At that committee’s inaugural meeting, Rep. Wand asked about the criteria used to select the project and move it forward, and Rep. Bentz tried to get to the bottom of the Purpose and Need statement. Legislators, understandably, are trying to figure out how the heck we got saddled with an unaffordable mega-project, while rejecting a host of alternatives we could actually get built.

To hear the CRC staff explain it, the CRC highway mega-project has been driven by its Purpose and Need statement, which is what the federal government uses to measure proposals under the National Environmental Policy Act.

But here’s the key: if you adopt the wrong Purpose and Need statement, incorrectly measure alternatives against it, or use it as your only measure, you’ll end up with the wrong policy. That, in short, is how we ended up saddled with a bloated, ineffective, unaffordable boondoggle.

Several years ago the freight and business lobby decided they wanted a highway mega-project in north Portland and Vancouver. They got the highway departments excited about it, and tied it to the region’s light rail plans to improve political support. They also decided to frame it as a new bridge crossing the river, instead of a five-mile long highway project. They rejected most of the alternatives to their design out of hand and have worked to frame the debate as “build our mega-highway or do nothing.”

As part of that effort, the Purpose and Need statement was drawn up by the two state highway departments in 2006 and approved with a few revisions by the CRC Task Force. The two DOTs then used the carefully engineered statement to rule out any alternative that didn't include a massive increase in highways. Despite various efforts to change the statement, and an ongoing stream of requests from the public and community organizations to include key missing elements, the CRC has refused to fix it.

If we’re concerned with reaching the most cost-effective, best public policy, here are some of the questions we should be asking:

Instead of asking broad questions, and comparing answers with price tags attached, the highway departments and their consultants asked narrow questions without price tags, pointing to more work for them. Here’s what the adopted purpose and need statement includes:

Purpose: To improve Interstate 5 corridor mobility by addressing present and future travel demand and mobility needs in the Columbia River Crossing Bridge Influence Area (BIA). The BIA extends from approximately Columbia Boulevard in the south to SR 500 in the north [and only a small area east-west of the highway.]

… The proposed action is intended to: a) improve travel safety and traffic operations on the Interstate 5 crossing’s bridges and associated interchanges; b) improve connectivity, reliability, travel times and operations of public transportation modal alternatives in the BIA; c) improve highway freight mobility and address interstate travel and commerce needs in the BIA; and d) improve the Interstate 5 river crossing’s structural integrity.

Needs to be addressed by the proposed action include:

  • Growing Travel Demand and Congestion: Existing travel demand exceeds capacity … Daily traffic demand over the I-5 crossing is projected to increase by 40 percent during the next 20 years, with stop-and-go conditions increasing to at least 10 to 12 hours each day if no improvements are made.

  • Impaired freight movement:... Vehicle-hours of delay on truck routes in the Portland-Vancouver area are projected to increase by more than 90 percent over the next 20 years...

  • Limited public transportation operation, connectivity and reliability: Due to limited public transportation options, a number of transportation markets are not well served...

  • Safety and Vulnerability to Incidents: The I-5 river crossing and its approach-sections experience crash rates nearly 2.5 times higher than statewide averages for comparable facilities...

  • Substandard bicycle and pedestrian facilities... Direct pedestrian and bicycle connectivity are poor in the BIA.

  • Seismic vulnerability: The existing I-5 bridges are located in a seismically active zone. They do not meet current seismic standards and are vulnerable to failure in an earthquake.

Those who have evaluated the project know this statement is rife with errors and flaws, and the models of future doom wrong. Traffic levels are already far (17,000 vehicles per day) below projections, having flattened for years before the recession. There are many more dangerous highway segments in the region and many bridges that are more seismically vulnerable. And the region’s bicycle advocacy group is opposing the new project and its substandard bike facilities. So the project – the most expensive project in the region’s history, costing over $4,000 per household – is the wrong answer to even its narrow definition of needs.

More critically, the Purpose and Need statement (and the misapplication of it) put too many blinders on the evaluation of our choices. It:

The problem and our needs were defined too narrowly, and the solution is now over-constrained. This is contrary to what the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration specifically direct agencies to do: “Care should be taken that the purpose and need statement is not so narrowly drafted that it unreasonably points to a single solution,” and “Relevant information on factors considered during the metropolitan or statewide planning processes should be presented or incorporated by reference, as appropriate.” Federal courts have upheld these requirements.

Dreaming of billions, the CRC project also rejected sophisticated, affordable alternatives that were offered up within the constraints of the Purpose and Need statement, arguing that they failed to meet the needs outlined (and that the current project would). The highway departments and its high-priced consultants were judge and jury, dismissing anything that got in their way of their mega-project.

Despite this farce, it’s not too late to change direction. The legislature can set its own requirements when it considers whether to write a half-billion-dollar check (and raise the gas tax). Legislators can, and should, consider impacts beyond the tiny area drawn by the CRC, looking at the downstream railroad bridge and the project-induced congestion in the heart of Portland. Legislators can include cost effectiveness and opportunity costs as important factors in choosing what gets funded.

Ask the wrong questions, and you’ll get the wrong answer. Welcome to the CRC boondoggle – an extremely costly, risky highway mega-project.

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    Full disclosure: I've done work on the CRC for the Coalition for a Livable Future. I speak only for myself.

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    I'd rather focus this discussion on the purpose and need, and getting stuck with the current mega-highway plan, rather than the mayoral stances, but suppose it's an open forum.

    We had a long discussion about the mayoral statements on the CRC.

    There is one seemingly unabashed supporter of the CRC (in) this race: Mike Reese. "It’s imperative that the CRC be developed."

    Brady said "yes" she was for the project as it stands in the FEIS on her PBA questionnaire, and said "I am very supportive of the Columbia River Crossing project" at the union forum. But she has also written the project is "bloated" and wants to build "the right bridge."

    Hales said "I want that bridge built..." but called the current plan a "shelf study" and said "let’s find a version of that project that we can do and get it going in the first year of my term." That doesn't seem like he's supportive of the current mega-highway version.

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    Anyone else find it convenient that the most outspoken opponent of the CRC, Robert Liberty, got hired away out of his influential position and into a dream job, just as the project got serious?

    I'm really not one for conspiracy theories, but this strikes me as rather felicitous.

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      And then there's Ben Cannon, one of the most outspoken CRC critics in the Oregon House of Representatives, who was just hired away to be the governor's education advisor. And his colleague Jefferson Smith could be on his way to becoming mayor of Portland.

      The obvious takeaway for Oregon policymakers is that opposing the CRC is a path to career advancement. :)

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    Great article Evan, please keep them coming!

    And glad to see you got some use out of the clip showing the downstream rail bridge. If you think of any other issues that can be shown in edited clips like that, let me know; maybe I can whip something up.

    You make an interesting point:

    The CRC's Independent Review Panel found: “Questions about the reasonableness of investment in the CRC bridge because unresolved issues remain to the south [near 405 and the Rose Quarter] threaten the viability of the project.” Translation: if we don't have a billion-plus more dollars to expand more freeways, it's wasteful to build this project.

    I knew this was an issue, but had never seen that quote, straight from the horse's mouth.

    Now the Rose Quarter is always cited as the bottleneck down the line, and while it'll certainly be made worse by the CRC, it seems like there's another bottleneck between it and the CRC, and that'll prompt calls for freeway expansion I'm not hearing anyone talking about yet.

    When I start looking at the congestion in that area (as represented by Google traffic stats, which I find endlessly fascinating) seems like there's a really consistent major slowdown south of Delta Park, which is right about where the CRC influence area ends. This slowdown extends south quite a ways, but lets up well before the Rose Quarter.

    So if the CRC gets built, it'll pour a bunch more traffic into this clog from the north. The Rose Quarter will be the next big freeway expansion after or along with the CRC.

    But that North Portland slowdown (and here's a screengrab I made of it a few months ago will remain; with the CRC and the Rose Quarter expansions feeding all that extra traffic into it, it can only get worse.

    And then will come the inevitable calls for more freeway expansion, this time through the entirety of North Portland.

    Long story short: plugging the fire hydrant that is the CRC into the tangle of garden hoses that is our freeway network signs us up for a life subscription to the freeway-of-the-decade club.

    Long story shorter: I'm starting to think interstate highways just don't belong in cities.

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    "Write a half billion dollar check?" With what? There's no money for this project. So why the fuss? At the end of this year the $350 million surplus fund will be emptied because of the revenue shortfall projection.

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    This is what Charlie said about the CRC in his interview with WWeek June 29, 2011:

    What are your feelings about the Columbia River Crossing bridge project?

    The CRC has just been painful to watch. The city has essentially ceded its leadership to the [Oregon and Washington departments of transportation], and now the two governors are taking this project forward. If I’d been mayor, I’d have tried to have had a lot more influence over the outcome.

    If you were mayor now would you support the CRC in its current form?


    Do you believe a new bridge is necessary?

    I believe it is. But the light-rail portion is critical. Clark County voters have to agree on funding light rail. And we have to have tolls in place for this thing to work. Instead, we just started engineering.

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      Thanks John. I similarly read those comments in WWeek and thought Charlie Hales was against moving forward on the CRC. However, he said this (according to Beth Slovic's story in The Oregonian on 11/16/2011):

      "On the Columbia River Crossing, both Brady and Hales called for immediate action, a popular stance among trade unions seeking construction jobs. "We need to build that bridge, you guys," Brady told the crowd of 150. Hales went further, saying he would start construction in his first year in office."

      Am I correct in reading that Hales didn't like the process but is now ready to move full speed ahead on the current CRC plan? Or is there some nuance I'm missing?

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        What's happening is subtle.

        There's vocal support from Hales for the bridge (and from Brady, in some venues, for the CRC project). But the bridge only 25% of the project's cost (most of the project is five miles of highway expansion and five to seven highway interchanges).

        From an interview on Hales' web site...

        9:15 to 11:27 “I’m in favor of a project that we can actually build. And I’ve been worried that the current project has gotten so big and so expensive that it’s not going to happen... we’re going to have to come up with something more affordable than the plan we have now.”

        “I’ve always been involved in our transportation process as a team player. If the strategy of this region is to move this project forward, I’ll help. And I won’t try to substitute my judgement for the work that’s been done. But if turns out that we can’t afford this one...”

        And from the union forum: "let’s find a version of that project that we can do and get it going in the first year of my term."

        As I hear it, Hales is saying he wants to get a project done, but that the current project isn't realistic. And with twenty years of leading on major transportation projects, Hales probably knows.

        Those distinctions are either being missed or are too nuanced for short media stories from overworked reporters.

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    It becomes more and more doubtful daily that there will be any federal participation in this mega boondogle. While the I-5 corridor needs a more bottleneck free path through Portland, this CRC project is not the answer. Evan keep up the good work.

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