Shifting Stories on the Costly, Risky CRC

Evan Manvel

The promise of a special discounted price on the CRC - to be responsive to legislative concerns - was just smoke and mirrors.

What’s today’s story?

Two weeks ago the staff and consultants for the CRC highway mega-project made their third presentation at a hearing of the CRC legislative oversight committee. Unlike previous hearings, this one was electric – and made front-page news in The Oregonian. CRC consultants and staff presented the oversight committee with a new plan – one to cut back the CRC by $650 million, eliminating expanded connections to the ports.

CRC consultant Patricia McCaig: “We aren’t tone deaf. We understand this project makes you nervous... we’ve clearly been directed by the Governor, the public and conversations with you to go for a smaller project. That’s the reality of these times.”

Smaller, of course, is relative. It would still be the most expensive project in the region’s history, costing billions of dollars. It would still fail to solve the traffic problems, add congestion to North Portland, and tear down the bridge that has 55 years of life in it.

The next day the story changed.

Governor Kitzhaber’s spokesperson backed away from the idea, saying “There’s no discussion on eliminating anything.” And Paula Hammond, Director of the Washington Department of Transportation, sent a memo to Washington legislators saying the plan presented to Oregon legislators wasn’t the plan.

The promise of a special discounted price on the CRC - to be responsive to legislative concerns - was just smoke and mirrors. Even if ODOT shows a smaller initial price tag, they still plan to build the whole project, and bill accordingly.

And the fictitious sticker price conceals a more important question, still unanswered six years into the planning: who will pay?

The mega-project's financing plan is based on highly uncertain federal money, unpassable state gas tax increases, and questionable tolling income. At the hearing CRC officials dodged the question of who would be responsible for the likely huge cost overruns - by my count five times.

The $300 million or $450 million CRC is asking for is just the "E-Z down payment" - the real bill will come later - after the legislature signs on the dotted line.

CRC backers want it both ways: a shine of relative affordability, an appearance of responsiveness, while still planning to build the whole mega-project, five miles of highway expansion with huge interchanges.

WSDOT's Hammond also claims Washington is forging ahead with plans for a new transportation revenue package that includes Washington’s $450 million share. That contradicts the budget proposal out of the Governor’s office.

Having multiple stories is something the CRC has gotten good at. The project uses two different traffic projections in its FEIS. They have a constantly shifting schedule of building while claiming they're on schedule. They claim they’ve saved the same money multiple times.

Until the Columbia River Crossing project gets its plan straight – until it has any idea about how to find the funding for the project or is clear on what will be built – we have the responsibility to stop funding the fantasy.

The legislature needs to step in, and do so immediately.

Between now and the 2013 session, the high-priced CRC consultants and staff will spend another $10 million or so from ODOT's budget. That’s ten million dollars that could be going to key maintenance needs across the state, creating construction jobs.

We simply don’t have the time or money to waste on ever-changing stories based on fantasy funding.

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    Well, hello? The legislature is in session. Who is putting pressure on them to kill this monster? They are supposed to be making cuts. How about starting with the $10 million planning funds to be spent in the next two years and giving that to Oregon schools.

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    Disclaimer: I do some work on the CRC for the Coalition for a Livable Future. And I haven't had enough coffee this morning.

    I speak only for myself.

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    We have got to get away from the idea of wrecking the environment to provide jobs. There are myriad improvements that could be made to public transportation, low-income housing, energy conservation, and renewal energy which would provide many more jobs for the money and actually improvement our quality of life, reduce our carbon footprint and increase the resilience and sustainability of our communities.

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    In Texas a recent privatized toll road was installed. Use does not cover costs. It has been rejected by potential users because it was shoved down peoples throats. A more afffordable plan for the CRC was put together at PSU several years ago by urban planning students under the competent leadership of Will Macht. The price tag was under two billion.

    More relevant is this question. Why can the United States government allow sixty billion dollars in reconstruction in Iraq evaporate and then seal the records for twenty years? Could it be that the same criminal contractors are getting similar sweetheart deals in Afghanistan and God knows where else? You bet your donkey and your elephant.

    Now, why on this earth should tolls be used to pay for an integral part of an interstate transportation system? Is there a political insider anywhere on Blue Oregon with direct ties to all but one member of the Oregon delgation who can answer that? Up your game.

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    There are great plans out there that save more than a billion dollars and build a better bridge.

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    At some point, won't the Oregon legislature have to pass a funding package for this boondoggle? When that happens, opponents should be ready with a petition to refer the funding bill to a state-wide voter. There's precedent; in 1997 (IIRC) statewide voters killed a MAX line by rejecting a referendum to the State of Oregon funding component. And that project didn't even include a tax increase.

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    Over here in Vancouver, there sem to be two general categories of people who oppose the CRC project. Group #1 are those who oppose the CRC on public policy or environmental or economic grounds (both as government policy and because they don't want to pay $3.60 per day to drive to work or shop in Portland). While I support the CRC, I can understand the legitimate concerns of Group #1. The troubling folks are Group #2, who are sometimes improperly mixed in with the first group by overly generalizing commentators or pollsters. The Group #2 folks are those who use complicated arguments and code words to communicate that they don't want an "undesirable element" from North Portland to be able to freely visit us here in nearly all-white Vancouver. The second group are frequent commentators on local web sites, highlighting every crime incident on Portland's Light Rail as further evidence of what "those people" will do if they are allowed into the fair city of Vancouver.

    My point in mentioning this is that I hope that people who oppose CRC on economic policy or personal economic interest or other legitimate grounds are careful not to allow themselves to be directly or indirectly affiliated with Group #2.

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    Evan, thanks for staying on top of this turkey. We need seismic upgrade. We need more mass transit. We do not need more sprawl. We do not need unsupportable debt for unnecessary infrastructure.

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