CRC project still waiting for straight answers

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

House Bill 2800, authorizing the construction of the Columbia River Crossing, was passed last March during the regular Legislative Session. The bill determined that it was in the best interest of the people of Oregon to construct the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing Bridge. It is my understanding that the bill’s “best interest” statement was contingent upon several specific and salient conditions.

The entire project funded by Oregon, Washington, the Federal Government and any toll-backed revenue bonds could cost no more than $3.413 billion, in addition to the money already spent on the project. Also, the state of Oregon could borrow and bond no more than $450 million in principal owed at any one time for the project.

Further, no bonds of any kind could be issued until four criteria were met.

  1. The Washington State Legislature must agree to support the plan and provide its share of the funding.
  2. The United States Department of Transportation must submit a full-funded grant proposal for at least $850 million in federal funding.
  3. An investment grade analysis of the proposed toll-backed revenue bonds must be completed.
  4. The State Treasurer must review and approve a comprehensive finance plan for the project.

It is my understanding that all four criteria were required to be met on or before September 30, 2013. It is common knowledge that none of the four criteria were completed within that time allowance. Moreover, the Washington Legislature declined either to support or to fund their share of the project.

A number of interest groups, Governor Kitzhaber, and certain Legislators have endeavored to reincarnate the I-5 Bridge as a stand-alone Oregon and federal funded project. It is my understanding that the current plan is to build the Bridge without the support, funding or permission of the Washington Legislature.

On Friday, January 14, 2014, the Joint Interstate 5-Bridge Replacement Committee held a legislative hearing regarding the Columbia River Crossing. The equally bipartisan Committee is comprised of twelve members of the House appointed by the Speaker and twelve members of the Senate appointed by the President. Twenty-two of the twenty-four committee members voted in favor of HB 2800. The Committee co-chairs and co-vice chairs are the same legislators that carried HB 2800 on the floors of their respective chambers.

The hearing was scheduled to last two hours and was informational in nature.  Only invited testimony was allowed. Those invited to testify were generally experts on various different aspects of the proposed project. Literally hundreds of pages of supporting documentation and numerous power-point presentations were provided and are now available to the public on the Oregon Legislative Information System.  The Committee did not seek or allow public comment.

The invited testimony included discussions of bridge engineering, financing, estimated traffic flows, tolling procedures and expected revenue, as well as other financial and legal issues.

From my perspective, the hearing did not go well, for those who support the project. Committee members began asking questions early, and continued to ask questions for more than four and one half hours. As the hearing progressed it became more apparent that the project continues to have many unaddressed and unanswered problems. It seemed that several individuals who were asked to answer those questions were more intent on skillfully avoiding the answers.

Committee members wanted to know how much the entire project will cost. They repeatedly asked for the total amount of money that will be spent from all sources. One could estimate, from the varied answers, that the total cost could be between six and seven billion dollars. However, after four hours of pointed questions, no one would, or could, answer the total-cost question.

Committee members are aware that large highway construction projects have a long-history of costing a great-deal more than their anticipated cost. The Committee asked questions regarding possible cost-overruns and who would be responsible to pay for those additional costs. Their queries appeared to be largely deflected, dismissed or ignored. In short, there appears to be no contingency to pay for the bridge, in the event that the bridge costs more to build than expected.

Committee members asked pointed questions regarding concerns that traffic will avoid the tolling on the I-5 Bridge, by diverting to the I-205 Bridge to cross the river. They pointed out that the project’s own consultants have expressed concerns about both causing traffic gridlock on the  I-205 Bridge and reducing toll-traffic on the new bridge resulting in lower than expected toll revenue. The same consultants now appear to believe that neither will be a problem, even though nothing has changed on the design of either bridge. Some committee members appeared to question the credibility of that testimony.

Two critical reasons were given for rushing the legislation to support the bridge through the 2013 session. First, we were told the Oregon Legislature needed to approve the project before the Washington Legislature adjourned, so that body could, in turn, approve the project. It was made clear that the project could not, and would not be built, without the state of Washington’s approval and participation. The Washington Legislature neither approved nor funded the project!

We were told the second reason was that the window of opportunity, to access Federal funding for the light-rail part of the project, would close by the end of September last year. Some committee members wondered how this alleged drop-dead date could have been true, in view of the fact that project supporters continue to plan on using federal funds to build the light-rail portion of the bridge more than four months after that alleged “drop-dead” date.

Under what authority is Oregon given the right to build a bridge into Washington without the permission of the people and Legislature of the state of Washington? How would our Legislature and people view the reverse of that proposal? And under what authority does Oregon have the right to spend constitutionally protected Oregon Highway funds to build highway assets in the state of Washington?

Many other points of credibility were challenged by committee members during the marathon hearing. In my opinion, most of the answers that were provided did little to solve that credibility gap.

There is little doubt that we need to establish greater traffic capacity to cross the Columbia River on the I-5 corridor. The question is whether the proposed Columbia River Crossing is the solution to that need.

I voted NO in March, because I did not believe the proposed project was the right answer. In my opinion, its engineering, traffic projections and funding were in disarray. It appears to me that little but rhetoric has changed since that vote, except that Washington has now declined to participate.

In my opinion, the project, as currently proposed, should not receive the support of the legislature in 2014. At least not until straight answers are given to serious questions. Friday’s hearing certainly suggested that many project supporters do not have, or are not willing to share, those straight answers.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls