Gov. Gregoire: No Money for the Costly, Risky CRC

Evan Manvel

It turns out you can’t build a $4,000+ million highway mega-project with rhetoric alone.

The competition is heating up for which funds are least likely to magically appear for the CRC. The tea party Congress and evaporating federal gas tax revenues had an early lead. The state treasurers made their pitch, finding a $500 million hole in tolling income. The Oregon legislature holds its own, having nowhere near the votes needed for a big gas tax increase. Now, making a strong move, is the state of Washington.

The headline after Gov. Gregoire’s State of the State address wasn’t “Gregoire to CRC: Drop Dead.” But it might as well have been. While long on rhetoric, Gregoire has been short on cash when it comes to the costly, risky CRC. And her new budget allocates exactly nothing towards constructing the most expensive project in the region’s history.

In her address, Gregoire proposed a big new ten-year, $3.6 billion transportation funding package, funded by a $1.50 assessment on barrels of oil. Most would go to highway and ferry maintenance, with the rest for police, Amtrak, transit, and local maintenance.

No money is planned for huge highway expansions like the Columbia River Crossing and the rest of the $21 billion wish-list from Gregoire’s blue-ribbon Connecting Washington task force – including Spokane’s North-South Corridor, Snoqualmie Pass, Route 167, the 40-mile I-405 corridor, four new car ferries and I-5 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Nor are there funds to complete two higher priority mega-projects: the 520 bridge, which is $2.2 billion short, and the transit enhancements for the Seattle viaduct replacement.

As it happens, neither money nor votes grow on trees, and rhetoric is much cheaper than huge highway interchanges.

Washington, like Oregon, built a significant number of transportation projects last decade, paid for with bonds that need to be paid back over the past thirty years. More than one in three of the state’s transportation dollars will go to debt service for the foreseeable future (see page 10 here). Those payments, and the two states’ maintenance needs, will eat up all the projected transportation revenue and then some. (I covered Oregon’s problems December 16th). Last Sunday, the Vancouver Columbian reported on Washington’s problems:

As transportation planners gear up for a big slate of projects in 2012 — even 2013, based on continuing work already underway — the future is less certain, said WSDOT regional administrator Don Wagner. A large spike in public funding is about to dry up...

Transportation officials intentionally front-loaded the work schedule... Wagner said, with borrowing costs to be paid off long-term by gas tax collections.

“We’ll be done with that work in 2014,” Wagner said. “We’re going to pay for that work for the next 30 years … It was not a pay-as-you-go system... We can’t just preserve what we have.”

To her credit, Governor Gregoire decided to do what any responsible person would do - prioritize maintenance, as rebuilding roads costs eight to 12 times as much as maintaining them.

While her proposal would partly fill the maintenance backlog, it’s unclear even it will receive the support it needs to pass the legislature or at the ballot. The proposal has been criticized by groups who want more investment in cost-effective, environmentally responsible transportation modes like walking and biking, as well as oil refining representatives who argue the proposal is a tax, not a fee. If the $1.50 per barrel of oil assessment is a tax, it needs two-thirds majority support in the legislature.

At the same time, Washington initiative king Tim Eyman filed a host of new initiatives this week, three of which would further cut transportation funding in the state.

Even if Gregoire succeeds in passing her big new transportation funding package, and Eyman fails, there is no construction money for the CRC. As the project staff admit time after time, they lack even a single dollar dedicated for construction from any source.

Unfortunately, the CRC is still spending tens of millions of dollars a year on engineering, high-priced consultants, and lobbyists. The Oregon legislature must stop the highway departments from wasting money on this fantasy. Those precious millions could be going to our most pressing needs – maintenance, construction jobs, safety, and improving transportation options around the state, instead of being dumped down the CRC rat hole.

An ongoing talking point from CRC backers is that doing nothing is not an option. Until we pull the plug on the current unaffordable, over-engineered plan, nothing is exactly what will get built.

The video above is from a press conference held yesterday by the Smarter Bridge Committee.

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    Disclaimer: I do some paid work for the Coalition for a Livable Future on the CRC highway mega-project.

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    Does this kill the project?

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    Great news! Thank you so much for this post!

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      Unfortunately, this doesn't kill the project. What will be needed is specific action from one of three groups - the Governors, the Transportation Commissions, or the Legislatures, to stop funding the ongoing spending on engineering and planning.

      There are no dedicated construction funds. But the highway departments have big enough lee-way to spend as they wish, and someone's has to take action if we want to stop wasting money.

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    Why not post the whole video, Evan? It is a great illustration of the challenges we have getting this region on the same page with respect to the right solution.

    Also, you can find the list of requested transportation projects in Gregoire's 2012 Supplemental Budget here (includes an increase for CRC over the original 11-13 budget):

    If you have a project list that better reflects what you refer to as "her new budget," a link would be useful.

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      Nolan - Requested transportation projects are very different from funded transportation projects. That's the whole point - Gregoire has rhetorical support, but no money.

      Prior to publishing this article, I called her office and they said her proposal in the State of the State was for maintenance and operations, and there was no money for construction of new highway expansions, including the CRC highway mega-project.

      One of the ongoing frustrations is the lack of transparency in the CRC budgeting process.

      The Columbian has a couple fabulous articles about the CRC budget problems this week.

      Here's the news story

      After David Evans and Associates took on its role as the Columbia River Crossing's largest private contractor, it said it would have the final environmental planning for the $3.5 billion project wrapped up for construction by the end of 2009, for about $21.6 million.

      Instead, the job has dragged on more than two extra years, and the estimated cost has grown to $58.8 million, documents show. And time and again, the Portland firm has been granted time extensions and more money to finish the work.

      “This casts doubt on the veracity of their claims that they know how to anticipate problems and risks and manage costs,” Portland economist and CRC critic Joe Cortright said. “Their track record is … they aren't able to do what they say they're going to do. And they haven't gotten to the very hard part of actually building something.”

      here's today's editorial:

      In our view: CRC Out of Control Contract extensions, blown deadlines all add up to an infuriating track record

      Local transportation officials seem to have plenty of excuses for the out-of-control spending in Columbia River Crossing planning. But observant taxpayers aren't buying, and the excessive doling-out of tax dollars only serves to fuel observant critics' strongest claims.

      The business-as-usual explanation is the most aggravating part of this problem, which was detailed in Sunday's Columbian. The well never runs dry when it comes to paying for things with tax dollars. Another infuriating aspect is that private firms are not only awarded no-bid contracts, but are repeatedly allowed to extend the terms of those contracts. It's one symptom of a much greater problem: government's inability or unwillingness to properly project costs and then force responsible private-sector parties to work within those parameters.

      As far as the whole video, feel free to watch it. It shows the diversity of people who understand how big of a failure this mega-project is -- and the number of citizens who've sacrificed hundreds of hours, almost all unpaid, to do diligent research and take on a multimillion dollar lobbying machine, funded by taxpayers.

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        "Requested transportation projects are very different from funded transportation projects."

        The truth is that while she has a proposal for funding maintenance and operations, and no proposal for funding highway expansions, both are currently in the category of requested but unfunded.

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          Well, if you want to quibble, here's what's up:

          • Gregoire is leaving office in 2013.

          • This is her last session.

          • In requests of the legislature this year, she didn't ask for money for the CRC.

          • She did ask for maintenance money.

          So I don't think the requests at the same level, despite neither being funded yet.

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            Yeah, I simply don't agree. You'll note that she didn't ask for CRC money in the last SOTS, but she sure included it as a line item in her budget request. My guess is that with the budget in the shape its in, you're more likely to see another 2013 line item in November than you are to see this transportation package of new money passed as requested.


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