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    What went wrong with Columbia River bridge planning?

    A state examination is trying to answer some big-money questions.
    The I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver

    The I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver Credit: Brian Legate/Flickr

    The Columbia River Crossing bridge between Portland and Vancouver may have died but the forensic examination of its fatal flaws are continuing.

    On Wednesday, Deputy Legislative Auditor John Woolley briefed the bipartisan Joint Legislative and Audit & Review Committee on an audit of the bridge. The "forensic audit" is part of the state's 2013-2015 operating budget adopted in June; the study is supposed to be available in April 2014.

    The Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver was a vehemently partisan issue in the last legislative session, and one factor in Republicans and Democrats deadlocking on passing a transportation revenue budget. Democrats wanted to replace the aging bridge — partly built in 1917 and partly built in 1958 — to increase its traffic capacity and to put light rail on it. Republicans opposed the replacement because they don't want Vancouver-area citizens to pay taxes to support light rail, while also arguing three upriver manufacturers would not be able to barge their goods beneath a lower replacement bridge.

    As of this summer, the state has negotiated mitigating measures with the three upriver businesses.

    The cost of the bridge project, including interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River, is estimated at $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion. The federal government would have footed several hundred million of the bill with tolls expected to raise $1.8 billion if Oregon provided $450 million and Washington provided another $450 million. Washington’s Republican-oriented Senate refused to consider appropriating the $450 million, and the project supposedly died.

    Now, Oregon is exploring whether it can tackle the bridge with federal help, but without Washington's participation.

    Republicans in Vancouver and Olympia have questioned whether the design of the replacement bridge was done competently and in legally correct fashion. Consequently, the forensic audit was put into the 2013-2015 state transportation operating budget.

    Woolley told the committee that the audit would concentrate solely on the architectural and engineering work, which make up most of the $170 million spent so far on the project. The State Auditor's Office will look at whether fraud or misuse of money occurred; whether unusual or excessive hours were charged during the design work; whether proper rates were charged; and whether contracted tasks remained within the scope of the original contracts.

    Two corrections have been made to this story. The forensic audit was actually called for in the transportation budget, not the operating budget. And the original story did not say that $1.8 billion of thecosts would be covered by tolls. 


    For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.

    John Stang covers state government for Crosscut. He can be reached by writing editor@crosscut.com.

    Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!


    Posted Thu, Sep 19, 9:19 a.m. Inappropriate

    Rail transit in Portland is a rousing success and it seems at least superficially plausible that extending the rail into Vancouver WA makes sense. But I think supporters have to admit that an urban rail transit system that crosses state borders is unusual. When I lived in New York City a long, long time ago, I had to take a bus to go to New Jersey. The subway didn't go under the Hudson and I don't think it does to this day. Likewise Kansas City, MO and Kansas City KS have intertwined bus service but no rail and the rail system they contemplate does not cross state lines. The connection between Portland and Vancouver is as much a product of our respective state's tax systems as it is of an organic economic interdependence. Our tax systems may change. So there is some reason to be skeptical of the rail aspect of this bridge; this article and others mention that only three businesses depend on the higher clearance such as the clearance at the 405 bridge and, as noted, the businesses can be moved or otherwise compensated. But it is also true that the lower bridge will limit all future potential upstream uses in a way that the 405 bridge does not. This article is ostensibly neutral but coverage of this issue frequently shortchanges the counterarguments on the transit/bridge controversy.


    Posted Thu, Sep 19, 1:12 p.m. Inappropriate

    "The subway didn't go under the Hudson and I don't think it does to this day."

    I don't know what decade you lived in NYC, but while technically correct (assuming "subway" only means the original subway system in city), there are at least two commuter rail systems in the NY met area that serve three states. See:

    The Path train uses two tubes under the Hudson (I think the northern one is shared rail with Amtrek, etc.)

    [Written at New York Public Library main reading room.]


    Posted Sat, Sep 21, 5:40 p.m. Inappropriate

    PATH is a descendant of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad. It was resurrected as a commuter rail line (separate from NY Transit) as part of the World Trade Center development and, yes, WTC was built after I lived in NYC. Its history as a railroad makes my comment more defensible but I admit I was unaware of PATH. Thank you.


    Posted Thu, Sep 19, 9:38 a.m. Inappropriate

    The author needs to check his facts, the statement: "The federal government would have footed most of the bill if Oregon provided $450 million and Washington provided another $450 million." is patently false. The feds were going to provide some money to help build the light rail portion, while at the same time requiring that millions of that money be spent building giant park and ride structures in downtown Vancouver. Most of the money would have come from tolls and the two states to build this freeway expansion, not the federal government.


    Posted Thu, Sep 19, 10:33 a.m. Inappropriate

    This is a shallow piece on a complex story that would make a great public administration "case study." It deserves better.

    Politically, the CRC ended when Senator Don Benton was reelected by about 100 votes. Benton had run on a tea party platform of "no new bridge, no light rail." David Madore, who was elected County Commissioner at the same time, is the wealthy leader of the pack who spreads his money around to true believers.

    There is an isolationist - and to some extent an inferiority - complex shared by many in Clark County regarding Portland. It is the "big city" with all its problems. Bridge and light rail opponents also played a subtle "race card" arguing Portland crime would spread to Vancouver and Clark County. As if a new bridge would stop it! And as if the criminals would take light rail! Finally, light rail would have extended only to Clark College - two miles from the bridge - and residents in other parts of the City and County saw no reason to pay for it.

    And then there is a botched planning that gave CRC opponents all the ammunition they needed. Planners spent $170 million dollars,an obscene amount of money.

    If the CRC was in the Puget Sound, it still would have been built. But SW Washington is not on the "A" list for Puget Sound electeds. And if Governor Inslee had vetoed the budget until the CRC was included, it might have been funded.

    So now the 18th most congested metropolitan area highway will get worse, and interstate traffic from Mexico to Canada will still have the major choke point between Washington and Oregon.

    Posted Thu, Sep 19, 10:47 a.m. Inappropriate

    Missed, or ignored, I don't which it is, is that a majority of Clark County voters rejected extending Portland's light rail into Clark County in 1995 by a 2 to 1 margin. Subsequent efforts to extend light rail continue to try to bypass voters as promises of a vote are broken. Hence, voters have rejected every measure perceived to fund any part of light rail.

    All of the cries of the bridge being unsafe, need to ease congestion and improve freight mobility go up in smoke as we hear "no light rail, no bridge" from Governor Kitzhaber. That just shows how any bridge is held hostage to Portland's financially troubled light rail, Clark County voters not wanting to risk getting stuck with Portland's $1.6 Billion in unfunded liabilities.

    You can blame and point fingers all you want, it really boils down to a majority of voters in Clark County do not want it.


    Posted Thu, Sep 19, 8:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    The CRC is nothing but a series of payoffs. One set of them is to the various construction and engineering companies, and consultants, that stand to make big money from the project. Another is to Oregon's governor, Ted Kitzhaber, who won his last race by a whisker, with the decisive financial margin coming from the interested parties that contributed to his campaign.

    Then there is Tri-Met, the Portland transit agency that is staring over a long-term fiscal cliff, and desperately needs to stick an I.V. into Washington State's veins to avoid what otherwise will be bankruptcy and the attendant demise of its extravagant, white elephant light rail boondoggle. It's not going to look too good in 15 or 20 years when Portland has to abandon its rail system.

    The reality: The CRC bridge would reduce commute times by ONE MINUTE. That's right, ONE MINUTE.


    This project has never once been about reducing congestion or commuting times. It's about a web of political and financial payoffs among "progressives" who are every last bit as corrupt as the evil rich Republicans they so often decry. In fact, in Washington and Oregon the corruption is even worse than back East, because out here no one even wants to talk about it, and the media don't want to mention it.


    Posted Sun, Sep 22, 1:46 p.m. Inappropriate

    170 million in planning, ouch! I could've had a V8, or an entire new 6 lane I-5 bridge over the next largest river in the state BUILT for that kind of money.

    Posted Sat, Sep 28, 10:17 a.m. Inappropriate

    I too heard on a TVW program that Clark Co. residents would end up paying a lot of taxes into Portland's Tri-Met system for little or no benefit to them. I also heard it was six major businesses up river from the bridge that would have to be moved because of the bridge height at taxpayers' expense. I would think they would want to keep the option open for more business upriver from the "new crossing," not limit it.


    Posted Sat, Sep 28, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

    I too heard on a TVW program that Clark Co. residents would end up paying a lot of taxes into Portland's Tri-Met system for little or no benefit to them. I also heard it was six major businesses up river from the bridge that would have to be moved because of the bridge height at taxpayers' expense. I would think they would want to keep the option open for more business upriver from the "new crossing," not limit it.


    Posted Sat, Sep 28, 12:50 p.m. Inappropriate

    The ENTIRE reason for the CRC is for Portland's Tri-Met to stick an IV into Clark County's wallet. Portland's light rail is a fiscal disaster, and will collapse within 20 years without a new revenue source. The bridge isn't needed and will do exactly nothing to address traffic issues. It's entirely financial.


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