A Bad Few Months for the Costly, Risky CRC Mega-Project

Evan Manvel

"The [transportation] departments now resemble a lot of Americans post-recession: Short on income, mired in debt and facing an expensive future." - Jeff Manning, The Oregonian

Proponents of the CRC highway mega-project haven’t had a good year.

May’s election results are the latest troubling news. The CRC’s biggest supporter in the Portland mayoral race lost. Project über-booster Rep. Mike Schaufler was swept out in a landslide. Bob Stacey, one of the project’s most eloquent opponents, was elected to the Metro Council. And anti-tax Tim Knopp seems likely to join the Oregon Senate, winning his primary in part by attacking Senator Telfer for backing the 2009 gas tax increase.

The call for fiscal discipline is resonating, and CRC opposition is being used effectively as a sign of responsibility, with Jefferson Smith saying:

“We shouldn’t commit to starting the CRC in the first year of administration when we don't have the budget to pay for it,” Smith says. “I think that’s the kind of discipline I’ve developed by serving in recent tough budget times.”

Polling by The Oregonian confirmed what we’ve known all along: voters want to focus our public resources on maintenance, not costly new projects.

In short, the balance of political power – the one card the CRC has used in the face of mismanagement, financial troubles, demonstrably false statements, legal tangles, faulty models, bad press, huge costs, sparse benefits, and a growing group of opponents – may have shifted.

This year the Oregon and Washington legislative sessions closed without funding the mega-project, causing the federal government to skip funding as well. Jeff Manning at The Oregonian covered it well:

According to the CRC’s master plan, the first step into the breach on funding was to take place in January in Olympia. The Washington Legislature would approve a small gas tax hike sufficient to generate the state's $450 million share of the $3.1 billion price tag... The CRC gas tax was a political non-starter.

“We were talking about going to the ballot for things like education and human services,” said Washington Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island. “The possibility of getting a gas tax on top of that seemed miniscule.”

Andrea Damewood at The Columbian covered it as well:

The Federal Highway Administration passed over the Columbia River Crossing for a much-needed $1 billion loan last week... CRC project officials said the reason the feds declined money was due to a lack of support this session from lawmakers in the capital cities of Oregon and Washington....

[Portland economist Joe Cortright] noted that both states will be on the hook for cost overruns associated with construction, and that each state may have a limited borrowing capacity. “Oregon has gone from spending 1 percent of gas taxes on debt service to 28 percent... Washington will shortly be spending a stupendous 67 percent of its revenue on debt service. At the same time, revenues are declining. This system is broken and unsustainable.

From Manning:

Americans are driving less, in such numbers that it is shaking the financial foundation of transportation departments from Oregon to Oklahoma. Less driving means less gas consumed means less gas tax revenue.

Both the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation also face years of significant debt payments after an unprecedented borrowing spree over the last decade. The departments now resemble a lot of Americans post-recession: Short on income, mired in debt and facing an expensive future.

Not the ideal position from which to extract another $900 million for a controversial freeway project.

“We’ve got a problem, a serious problem,” said Paula Hammond, director of the Washington Department of Transportation.

March brought news that the bridge design lacks adequate river clearance. The story in The Columbian:

Plans for the Columbia River Crossing do not include a bridge high enough to meet the “reasonable needs” of the myriad ships that ply the busy waterway, the U.S. Coast Guard has told project officials.... Though the project has known since 2006 that some river users -- including Vancouver’s Thompson Metal Fab -- have called for more clearance, staff forged ahead with a plan for only 95 feet of clearance.

The news both exacerbates a problem – the impact of a soaring huge highway above Hayden Island and downtown Vancouver – and points to mismanagement. Moreover, the news cuts through a standard misleading argument for the mega-project: elimination of the less-than-once-a-day bridge lifts. The project’s engineers are wondering whether the planned new bridge might include a bridge lift (at 2:30 of this video).

Three Washington Congressional Representatives wrote a scathing letter to project leaders about the news. From The Columbian:

“We have been advised that the CRC’s own consultant warned that a clearance of 125 feet was needed in order to avoid impediments to navigation,” the letter reads. “Was this information taken into account for design purposes?”

The Columbian editorialized:

How the CRC and the Coast Guard could have been singing so long from different pages of the bridge-replacement hymnal is astounding to anyone who supports this endeavor, as well as to all taxpayers regardless of their views about the project.

Even The Oregonian’s editorial board was forced to admit, “It appears we got here with eyes wide shut...”

But there’s more. Back in February, Washington’s Department of Transportation cut toll projections in half for another mega-project, the Alaskan Way tunnel. Thus, toll revenues are shaky, and Washington is burning up its political and financial capital by funding other projects. From Publicola’s Erica Barnett:

[WsDOT], which initially predicted it would be able to raise $400 million in toll revenues to pay to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct with a tunnel, now believes tolls will raise only $200 million, half the original projection... The revised budget now assumes $702 million in funding from the federal government — $219 million more than the original assumption of $483 million.

Not to be outdone, Oregon legislators were reminded of ODOT’s record of mega-project mismanagement. From The Oregonian in May:

The [Highway 20] project... began in 2005, but ran into trouble only a year into the contract -- the single largest contract ever let by ODOT... It also has a new price tag approaching $300 million and a new completion date six years beyond the original target. [Editor’s note: It was originally projected to cost $110 million.]

...engineers discovered an even bigger problem -- columns on four of the project's tallest bridges had moved out of plumb. Worse, the earth was still moving. The project has been on hold since. In a March notice of default, ODOT cited 26 reasons for ending the contract, including failure to deliver the project, failure to comply with the project schedule, failure to comply with ODOT instructions and failure to deliver a design that is adequate.

The CRC dwarves the complexity and cost of the Highway 20 work.

Meanwhile, the mega-project continues to increase Oregon’s share of the costs. From The Columbian in March:

“Oregon and Washington will share bridge construction costs, but each is on the hook for highway improvements on their respective sides of the river. The cost to redo Washington’s interchanges will be $435 million, while Oregon will have to come up with $595 million to pay for its improvements.”

The original cost to the states – $450 million for each – continues to be in flux and look like it's planned in crayon. First the project decided to disregard the $140+ million put into the project thus far. Now they’re planning to increase Oregon’s share by $145 million. This is likely just the start of cost overruns and cost shifting.

In April, groups including the Coalition for a Livable Future and Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods filed paperwork noting an intent to sue the project under the Endangered Species Act.

This past Saturday, Nigel Jacquiss of Willamette Week won the Northwest region’s top prize for investigative reporting for his work on the CRC, including “A Bridge Too False” and five additional stories. Per the press release:

Jacquiss’ research found that a number of studies about traffic patterns on and over the Columbia River conflicted with claims made by proponents of the project. He also discovered that in many cases, data included in the project-planning team’s own documents undermined the claims made by its advocates. In addition, Jacquiss tracked the spiraling cost estimates for the CRC project and reported on flaws in the project’s financing plan.

Jaquiss’ most recent piece, “The $2.5 Billion Bribe” highlighted a key part of the ruling by the Oregon Supreme Court on the mega-project:

The Oregon Supreme Court has succeeded in doing what scores of public meetings, thousands of pages of reports, and endless public relations spin could not: Give us the original rationale behind the proposed $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing.

Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, writing for the majority, highlighted an inconvenient set of facts for CRC backers. He wrote in the Feb. 16 opinion that most of the project—namely the 10-lane freeway bridge and new interchanges—was put forward to get Clark County to agree to the light-rail line.

The key question legislators have to come to grips with: Why are we continuing to waste $1.9 million every month on this boondoggle, when we have so many other priorities?

When will enough be enough?

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    Disclaimer: I've done some paid work on the CRC issue for the Coalition for a Livable Future, and Bike Walk Vote, a group I co-chair, has endorsed and campaigned for several of the candidates mentioned.

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    For those who want to know more about Carla's comment: here's Nigel's piece on it.

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    Great piece, Evan! I hope this gets us moving closer to the project's demise.

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    One of the companies to make solid bank so far off the promise of the CRC is HDR Engineering, which already by last summer had been paid nearly $6 million in consulting fees. Charlie Hales is a senior VP with HDR, although I don't believe he personally works on that contract. Without making any personal comments about Hales' interests, it certainly seems like HDR is interested in seeing CRC continue. It's been good for them. Reach your own conclusions.

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    I think you should probably just create an acronym to save yourself time. CRCRCMP?

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    The financializing of everything has made policy choices and public input a very complicated affair. Certainly, Gov. Kitz is better than the alternative. However, he is supporting the Nestle plastic water bottling plant in Cascade Locks while at the same time opposing the Warm Springs destination facility. Trust me, the sixteen million per year to the city of Cascade Locks would have really made a difference. The bottling plant is a disaster unless you like plastic bottles floating in the Pacific. For heaven's sake OSU has done a great study on the folly of plastic bottles. Wake up Kitz. Or is it still sleepy Ted.

    Then of course there is the horrible plan by the Portland City Council for a new urban renewal fiasco at PSU. One hundred sixty five million. CALIFORNIA HAS JUST MADE TAX INCREMENT FINANCED URBAN RENEWAL ILLEGAL. WAKE UP PORTLAND.

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    Like suicide lanes, urban renewal needs to end.

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    The so-called Alternative plan seemed so much better when I first saw it. One of things we need to focus on is getting more freight on rail and off the roads. I think the alt plan does that. I swear there's about 5 trucks for every car on I84 along the Columbia.

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