10 Concerns with the Columbia River Crossing Plan

by Bob Clark

The Oregon legislature is on deck to approve or disapprove its share of funding for the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) Project.  The CRC plan is crafted by the Oregon Department of Transportation, Washington State Department of Transportation, and various other local and federal government agencies.  Oregon must also approve or disapprove an obligation to back the tolling revenue bonds included in the plan.  Oregon state government’s share of project investment is estimated to be $450 million, and additionally, its guarantee of toll bonds is estimated to be about $650 million.  Washington State’s contribution and obligation are the same as those of Oregon State, per plan.  The federal government is expected to contribute another $1,250 million.  All total, the CRC plan is estimated to cost $3.45 billion in state government contributions, project tolls, and federal contributions.

Construction of the CRC is targeted to start by July 2013.  Oregon’s special legislative session early next year is the critical next step in moving the project forward as planned, especially considering Washington State’s November 8, 2011, election results.  Voters in Clark County approved a sales tax increase designated for C-Tran, which is very much involved in the CRC plan.  Moreover, statewide, Washington voters narrowly defeated a measure which would have made tolling more problematic for the CRC project as planned.

So, attention turns to the Oregon legislature, and vetting the CRC plan as is.  I offer this article as an invitation for citizen dialogue, and not so much a definitive study against the CRC plan.  I list here the most substantive concerns that I believe Oregon legislators must weigh and address before casting their legislative vote.

Citizen Concerns with the CRC Plan

  1. The Environmental Impact Statement fails a key test The National Environmental Policy Act guides Environmental Impact Statements, such as those of the CRC, to weigh whether the proposed action is a “prudent use of taxpayer dollars.”  The CRC project as planned is not a prudent use of taxpayer dollars, particularly federal taxpayer dollars.  The CRC plan effectively chooses to ignore the largest component of public transit costs, that being, light rail’s capital costs.  Light rail adds somewhere in the ball park of $1 billion to total project cost; and by my calculations, the capital cost alone of each projected light rail passenger ride (extension only) will be on the order of $17.  The CRC plan did not consider substituting existing C-Tran express bus service as a mass transit alternative.  I seriously doubt the total cost of existing C-Tran express bus service is much more than $10 per ride.  TriMet, a key provider of plan transit cost estimates, routinely ignores capital costs, and instead focuses on operation and maintenance cost savings.  These savings pale in comparison to the capital cost savings of buses.
  2. The CRC plan has a strange sense of High Capacity Transit.  The CRC plan is almost criminal in its treatment of public transit commuters between Vancouver and Portland city center.  The plan has light rail commuters traveling between Vancouver and Portland center using the existing Max (light rail) Yellow line.  The Yellow line will continue as is, stopping numerous times as it meanders between Expo Center, Rose Garden and downtown Portland.  The Yellow line takes nearly 30 minutes to travel to downtown Portland (per train schedule) from the Expo Center.  By comparison, the existing C-Tran express bus service takes all of 19 minutes to travel to downtown Portland (or alternatively, Lloyd Center) from downtown Vancouver.  Capacity is a function of speed (in no small measure); and given its speed, the Yellow line is a very weak example of High Capacity Transit (if that).  Incidentally, the Bus Rapid Transit Alternative weighed in the planning process would have been downright criminal as it would have required bus rapid commuters to de-board at the Expo Center and reload onto the Yellow line.
  3. The $3.5 Billion Minute.  This point is made by Nigel Jaquiss, Willamette Week.  For those poor automobile stiffs, commuting from Vancouver to downtown Portland, the CRC project will shave all of about one minute off their peak morning commute time.  The main reason for such limited commute improvement for automobile drivers is removing the existing bottleneck at CRC Bridge and adjacent interchanges only serves to move the morning rush hour bottleneck a few miles south to the vicinity of the Rose Garden.
  4. Democratic processes are permissible in our republic, representative form of Governance.  Legislators and other elected government officials can and do place decisions directly with citizens upon occasion, particularly when they involve rather large amounts of public dollars as in the case of the CRC.  In fact, there was a time in the past in both Portland and Vancouver when citizens were asked by their elected officials to vote on such public projects as light rail.  Our representatives do not have to anguish over the CRC decision but could instead seek a direct vote of citizens in this matter.
  5. Bad accounting, dubious contracting practice, and questions of conflicts of interest.  The management of the CRC project to date has already resulted in significant cost over runs, making it questionable the project can stay within its estimated total budget of $3.45 billion.  The original $20 million [prime] contract to deliver the Environmental Impact Statement, record of decision, and strategy for pushing the project to completion has now ballooned to $105 million (Nigel Jaquiss, “The Runaway Bridge Budget,” Willamette Week, October 26, 2011).  Tiffany Couch, a forensic accountant working at the behest of a concerned Vancouver business leader, reports among other things that between the letting of this contract in 2005 and August 2009 the prime contractor routinely added a 4 percent markup fee to subcontractor billings – a fee not stipulated in the contract.  Rather than seek recovery of this over billing, the government’s CRC organization simply suggested changing the contract to allow this markup (Couv.com reports).  Jeff Manning of The Oregonian, reports:  “you’d be hard-pressed to find tighter allies than the Washington Department of Transportation and David Evans & Associates [prime CRC plan contractor].”  The tainting of this public project with questions of conflicts of interest isn’t just north of the Oregon border, either.  Governor Kitzhaber’s lead advisor for the Columbia River Crossing Project, Patricia McCaig, is a paid consultant of the prime CRC plan contractor (various news organizations report).
  6. The Oregon State Treasurer says the state is likely to pay on its toll revenue guarantee.  Economic consultants for the Oregon State Treasury Office suggest CRC plan estimates for annual gross toll revenues are out of date and too high by 15 to 25%, reflecting the depth of the recent recession not anticipated when plan (starting base) toll revenues were estimated in 2008 (“Columbia River Crossing Financial Plan Review,” Oregon State Treasury, July 20, 2011).  This Oregon State Treasury report goes on to say the CRC plan’s forecast of traffic flow growth (1.3% per year) and toll rate increases (2.5% per year) are risky for the state, as it pertains to the guarantee of the toll revenue bonds.  These assumptions, plus the out-of-date starting base forecast, risk an additional hit to state finances on the order of 50% of $468 to $598 million (per report).
  7. The CRC Project plan may include too many interchange improvements.  A member of the Oregon legislature who I spoke with suggests it may be possible to drop some of the interchange improvements and save significant project costs without materially compromising overall project benefits.  A citizen’s activist group (NoBridge Tolls.com) suggests saving hundreds of millions of dollars in project costs by eliminating several interchange improvements.  In fact, the Oregon State Treasury report above says, “a final decision about size and scope of project will be determined upon further refinement […].”
  8. How about some Rockwood with your light rail?  To use a cliché, fiscal conservatives in the Portland area have seen this movie before.  Government spending does not stop at the tracks.  For example, in the case of the Max line running through the Rockwood neighborhood, private developers did not rush to build a vibrant community surrounding the light rail line as government planners might have once envisioned.  Instead, after years of neighborhood and community deterioration after the Max line was placed into service, government has spent millions of dollars trying to shore up the Rockwood neighborhood.  Although CRC’s planned extension of light rail is only a matter of a mile or two for Oregon, it nonetheless represents additional spending risks for Oregon’s various governments based in part from the Rockwood experience.
  9. They don’t call it CriMet for nothing.  Light rail also brings an additional element of crime with it.  When TriMet put the green line into Clackamas County, the county sheriff noted a 30% increase in crime in the area surrounding the light rail station.  TriMet itself has gone to placing security personnel on the Max light rail lines.  Light rail in general may have a serious problem not fully appreciated when the CRC plan was drawn.
  10. The Blumenauer factor.  Oregon’s own Earl Blumenauer, U.S House of Representatives, is known to champion the use of light rail and street cars in transportation planning.  It is rumored Representative Blumenauer, certain other congress persons, and certain federal administrators are key in CRC’s federal funding.  It is further rumored these federal leaders in one way or other tie CRC’s federal funding to light rail’s inclusion in project.  So, effectively, the CRC project either moves forward with light rail included, or it does not move forward at all.  (The project is after all part of a federal highway, and Oregon and Washington together lack sufficient resources to build an alternative by themselves.)