John Charles is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute. Bob Stacey is the former Executive Director of 1000 Friends of Oregon.
The two of us may be strange bedfellows. Over the past twenty years, we’ve disagreed about many issues, including transit investments, land use laws and the underlying role of government. But recently we were both in Salem criticizing HJM 22, a bill asking the federal government to spend over a billion dollars on the ill-conceived “Columbia River Crossing” mega-project.
We each bring decades of experience in transportation policy to the table. Among the hundreds of projects we’ve seen, the current CRC proposal stands out as a doozy, throwing staggering amounts of money at a wasteful, ineffective plan.
Others, including the project’s own Independent Review Panel, have written about the huge costs to the taxpayers and the state, about the risks of cost overruns in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and about the project not fixing congestion but merely moving it from Vancouver to the I-405/Rose Quarter area. Those are serious problems.
As transportation experts from very different perspectives, we diverge on other flaws of the project. However, we agree on several actions Oregon should take instead of building the highway departments’ current bloated plan:
- Build an additional bridge. Having only two road crossings of the Columbia in the greater Portland area doesn’t make long-term sense. Clark County is an integral part of the region. We should be increasing the number of crossings of the river, whether the new bridge be a local or highway bridge, and whether it includes light rail or not.
- Retain the existing bridges. The current pair of I-5 spans have decades of life left in them. Spending $74 million to demolish them and build something in their place is wasteful.
- Use tolling. A well-designed tolling system could fully finance the cost of a properly designed and scaled new bridge.
- Increase the legislative oversight of mega-projects. ODOT and the Oregon Transportation Commission, rather than the Legislature, have historically guided and decided on projects. But the CRC mega-project’s bill of $450 million or more to Oregon taxpayers demands enhanced accountability measures.
- Strategically focus taxpayer investments in seismic upgrades. Oregon’s Bridge Inventory doesn’t list the I-5 bridges among those most threatened by earthquakes. We should be concerned about the impact of earthquakes. But we should examine all of Oregon’s infrastructure, from schools and bridges to water and sewer lines, and figure out which are the highest priority to reinforce or rebuild.
- Fix what we have before creating more money sinkholes. Our backlog of maintenance for existing roads and bridges is large and includes hundreds of structurally deficient bridges. We should make sure we can afford to maintain the infrastructure we have before building more.
Every independent review of the CRC mega-project has found major flaws. While some flaws can be fixed, the current plan to build five huge highway interchanges, tear down existing bridges, and build a new bridge is simply too costly and too risky. It won’t get us what we want, but it will stick us with a huge bill. The legislature should demand we do better.