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What went wrong with Columbia River bridge planning?

The I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver Credit: 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.

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