WELL, THERE GOES $100 million.
After years of work and more than $100 million of public money spent designing and promoting the new Columbia River Crossing (CRC) I-5 bridge to Vancouver, a panel of governor-appointed experts reported last week that the bridge design is seriously flawed. The governors of Oregon and Washington quickly agreed to can the $3.6 billion double-decker "open web box" plan for the state's largest transportation project and vowed to choose a new design within weeks.
So how did a bad design get this far along? The short answer: At almost every step, in the interest of breaking ground, officials were willing to set aside major concerns about the design's feasibility and cost.
Last year, a 16-person expert review panel determined that the CRC's chosen design—a 12-lane double-decker span supported by girders on each side—had never before been attempted. The panel calculated that the bridge's experimental nature would require an extra three years of work totaling $600,000.
Then, in a report released February 3, the panel offered three other designs for the bridge, each costing $10 million to $100 million less than the experimental design. Deep in the report is a scathing assessment of the design the CRC project took years to craft: "There is no technical or aesthetic advantage justifying the considerable risks associated with this design."
The CRC staff and the Project Sponsors Council, a group of state and local leaders in charge of the bridge, hammered out the seriously flawed design in 2008 and 2009. After four politicians on the council (Portland Mayor Sam Adams, then-Metro President David Bragdon, Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, and Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart) raised a stink about the cost and impact of the bridge in winter 2010, the governors pulled together the expert panel. Last August, the council wound up slicing the bridge from 12 lanes to 10, but pushed forward with the flawed design despite concerns. And now the entire bridge will be reworked.
The three new designs being considered—either a tied-arch, a cable-stayed, or a truss bridge—range in cost from $340 million to $430 million compared to the open-web box girder's $440 million price tag.
The Columbia River Crossing Coalition, a business advocacy group whose website is maintained by the Port of Portland, took a positive spin on the news. "The Columbia River Crossing Coalition applauds the governors for their continued support and determination to see the bridge constructed on time and on budget," Brian Gard, the coalition's executive director, wrote in a statement.
Meanwhile, groups opposed to the bridge plan see this rejection as a sign that officials should go back to the drawing board rather than rush to choose between three designs that are similar in concept to the original freeway and light-rail expansion.
"They should take the time to understand how they got so far down the line with a project this flawed and have some accountability there," says Mara Gross, policy director of the Coalition for a Livable Future. "The current problems point out once again that we can do better than a highway megaproject. We're better than that as a region."Download a copy of the final report here.