Light Rail Over the Columbia Rises From the Undead

Right From the Start

In the middle of July of 2014 I published the following column in the aftermath of the announcement that the Columbia River Crossing project was closing down:

The Oregonian carried a story on July 1 [2014] regarding the “demise” of the Columbia River Crossing project:

“Columbia River Crossing managers will begin closing the project today, ending assignments for 96 government workers and consultants in a Vancouver office.

“Opponents are celebrating the demise of the plan to link Portland and Vancouver with a $3.4 Billion bridge, highway and light-rail complex on Interstate 5.

“Stunned CRC supporters are trying to pick up the pieces of the decadelong (sp) initiative that shattered Saturday in the Washington Legislature.”

As I read the article and particularly the rejoicing of the opponents for having driven a stake through the heart of the biggest boondoggle in Oregon history, I kept having flashbacks to the Halloween series where each movie ends with the seeming irrefutable death of the psychopathic killer Jason. And then as night follows day, Jason proves that rumors of his demise were premature and he returns to reek more death and destruction for the next movie. And it isn’t just once that Jason is resurrected, it is every time – he cannot be killed.

And the same is true for light rail in the Portland metro area – it cannot be killed. Light rail has progressed uninhibited by the fact that at virtually every time a particular piece has been subject to a public referendum it has been rejected and never by a little but always by a lot. The latest instance is the Milwaukee branch that was rejected in a recent public referendum but ordered to proceed by the courts.
Light rail is the liberal Democrats wet dream. It is an opportunity to spend huge amounts of someone else’s money on a project that the great unwashed (voters) could not possibly understand is in their best interest. It is an opportunity to reward their friends and increase the payroll for the Democrats financial arm, the public employees union. And finally, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the liberals “commitment” to one of the holy grails of liberal thought – saving the environment by eliminating the cursed private carbon burning automobile in favor of the “pollution free, electrical mass transit system.” It is the perfect trifecta.

All of that is demonstrated in a recent report in last Friday’s Oregonian detailing where the $175 Million was spent in support of the failed project. Granted the largest sums went to two engineering firms for design work – David Evans and Associates and Parsons Brinckerhoff. But $7.7 Million went to Enviroissues Inc. which managed the public relations and communications – read grassroots lobbying – for the project. Another $400,000 to Democrat political advisor Patricia McCraig and even more to a list of Who’s Who of Portland based laws firms who are reliable contributors to the Democrats and often times lobbyists in both Salem and Olympia.

But even the money spent on the engineering firms is suspect. This project was not to determine the viability of a new bridge, or the location of a new bridge or even the appropriate carrying capacity of the bridge. Those decisions had already been made politically. The central element of the bridge was to be an expansion of light rail to Vancouver – nothing else mattered. It is also the precise reason that it has taken over a decade to get to this point of failure because inclusion of light rail made it too expensive and imposed a “white elephant” on the people of Vancouver who have protested and rejected it at every turn – but to no avail. The engineering studies and plans were for the purpose of accommodating the light rail. In the end the bridge would not carry a single additional lane of traffic over the Columbia River – that’s right the current bridge has three lanes moving in each direction and the new bridge would have precisely three lanes moving in each direction. The bridge was designed too low for current commercial ship traffic to pass under its span. It wasn’t a design error rather it was done to accommodate the light rail and the bike lanes – the elevation for an appropriately designed bridge would have made it too steep for the light rail and bicyclists. The initial solution was to pay shipping companies to re-engineer their ships so that they could pass under the bridge – one of the ten dumbest ideas Oregon’s political elites have ever devised. And even when disclosure of the barrier to ships embarrassed them to re-engineer and raise the spans, they were still too low for some existing ship traffic but tough luck to the manufacturers and shippers that relied on those ships. This was about light rail; shippers and automobile drivers were left to make the best of a bad deal.

And then there were the sixty-nine jobs – public employee jobs for the most part. Public funds used to pay inflated wages so that a portion can be siphoned off in the form of union dues, which are then used primarily to promote the policies and elections of Democrats.

For those of you who think this might be over let me remind you of two facts. First, this died in Washington solely due to an anomaly in the Washington legislature. The Democrats are in a majority in both house of the state legislature. The light rail funding bill easily passed the Democrat controlled House. However, there is a schism amongst the Democrats in the state Senate and even though there are twenty-six Democrats and only twenty-three Republicans, two defecting Democrats have joined with all of the Republicans to form a 25-24 majority. That anomaly will not stand. The Democrats – utilizing the virtually unlimited resources of their financial arm in the public employees unions will move heaven and earth to unseat one or both of the defecting Democrat senators. By the next legislative session, the Democrats will be back in control of both legislative houses and reconsideration of the Columbia River Crossing will begin anew. And if you doubt that, please remember the statement of state representative Jim Moeller (D-Vancouver) – as quoted in the Oregonian:

“’We need to start again.’ The next plan, he said, ‘has to engage the general public better, has to be more inspiring, less utilitarian, something that people want to leave behind. . . for their children, or for their children’s children.’”

In other words it has to be bigger, more expensive, with more inducements to support it.
This is a project that is supported by the ruling political class. They have unlimited taxpayer dollars to pursue and promote the project. When there is a set back, or they screw it up, they simply regroup, grab additional taxpayer funds and continue on. Those opposing light rail have to fund their opposition from their own resources – the resources left over after having paid tax dollars to promote the very thing they are trying to stop.

Now set against this backdrop, do you really think that the Portland/Vancouver light rail project is really over? Not by a long shot. Jason still has at least one more reign of terror to unleash on an unsuspecting public. [Bracketed words supplied]

As day follows night and as Jason rises from another sure death, the Columbia River crossing appears to have been reborn. Everything that was said in my column three and one-half years ago is equally true today.

The Democrats are in full control of the House, Senate and governor’s office in both Washington and Oregon. The alleged “reluctance” of the Oregon Democrats has more to do with determining the commitment of the Washington Democrats to extend light rail to Vancouver than it does anything else. Once the Washington Democrats commit to including light rail, this boondoggle is off to the races.

There will still not be any increase in the number of vehicular lanes crossing the Columbia River. There will still not be any provision for resolving the bottleneck on I-5 near the Rose Quarter. And there will still not be any resolution for the height of the bridge sufficient to accommodate existing commercial river traffic east of I-5. But there will be light rail and there will be bike paths and there will be Billions spent to accommodate the great idea of big city Democrats. But the traveling public – commercial and private – will get no benefit and yet another huge tax bill.

But this time may be different. There is no money. Specifically, there is no federal money. More specifically, there is no federal money for more light rail boondoggles in Oregon. Worse yet, Oregon – specifically the Portland metropolitan area – is going to have to find funds to provide for increased maintenance and replacement for its aging and lightly used existing light rail. And finally, there is President Donald Trump who is unlikely to find anything that can be remotely described as support for Oregon Democrats given the loud and wild accusations by Sens. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) as part of the so-called “Resistance.”

While increasing the traffic capacity for crossing the Columbia River is absolutely necessary it can be accomplished without the burden of light rail or bike paths. It can also be accomplished by creating a “Western” crossing somewhere in the vicinity of Sauvie Island and thus create the added advantage of actually benefiting the large concentration of high tech manufacturing in the Beaverton/Hillsboro area.

  • Bob Clark

    I would prefer Milwaukie’s share of the Orange line be shut down, and replaced by a bicycle/pedestrian corridor linking downtown to the Springwater Corridor just south of Tacoma Street station. Most every time I look at the Orange train going in and out of Milwaukie, there’s only a few people on board. You might be able to provide an Uber service to these few folks, and door-to-door at that, for the cost of operating the Orange line in Milwaukie. A lot more people commute by bicycle than by light rail…it’s not even close.
    The authorities say, yeah but it’s a development tool (light rail). But even here, the government ends up subsidizing and forcing housing development next to these lines. It’s a form of stocking people (like fish) for the light rail system, and even then, the fish don’t much use the choo choo train.
    I thought maybe the Trump Administration would stop these subsidy programs (half of light rail’s construction costs), but Trump is focused on much larger issues like national security and economic growth; and so, it’s somewhat doubtful he and/or his Administration will step in to end this Portland insanity.

  • Granola girl

    This is all the more reason to get Brown out of the capital. We DO need a new bridge, one that accommodates the cars and commercial vehicles with more lanes. We DO NOT need light rail to Vancouver. Tigard is the next target of the light rail nazis. They are shoving it down our throats. The insanity has to stop!!

  • mike rose

    The truth hasn’t changed one word, Larry. CRC was indeed a totally unacceptable unbelievably expensive boondoggle, where no one was held responsible or accountable. No one stood up to the steel-rail, cars-are-bad libs and told them the folly of their ways.

    Should there be a new attempt, let it be a true solution and not a masturbatory exercise in misguided excess that solves nothing. Westside bypass comes to mind immediately…a real solution which removes congested traffic from metro I-5, serves booming Washington County where real growth continues to make sense, and un-apologetically thumbs a nose at the “planners” with all the wrong answers. ODOT and WADOT must suck it up and develop a solution that works. Sufficient rubber-tired vehicle lanes in each direction, no steel rails or bike paths, and reentry to I-5 south of Wilsonville. A byproduct of new buildable land for additional residential development would result in expanding the urban growth boundary and easing the other affordable housing crisis which cripples the region.

    And let’s get it done in a timely fashion….not 10 plus years of foolish dithering with no resulting solution. If memory serves, Minneapolis rebuilt a destroyed Interstate bridge in about 2 years for somewhere around $350 million?

    There’s a leader out there somewhere…now’s the time to start.

  • Dave Lister

    The smart-growthers will not rest until they get a light rail spur into Clark County. Light Rail is the tap root of so called smart growth. Hopefully the Clark county people will continue to resist.