Illustration by BT Livermore

THE BIGGEST transportation project in our region's history is rich in cash and poor in consensus. Before a brick has been laid for the new $2.6-3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing (CRC), Oregon and Washington have given over $134 million from their state coffers and federal earmarks to plan the project.

But local and state officials are split on basic design issues in the current plan to replace the I-5 bridge to Vancouver with a 10-lane freeway and light rail bridge. So who is getting rich while the project drags on?

One clear answer: consultants. In the three years it has taken to write up a draft and a final environmental impact statement (due out this summer), the CRC project has spent $40,305,369 on consultants.

Most of those consultants are engineering and design firms. Parametrix and CH2M Hill have been paid $8,342,013 and $2,224,595 in public funds, respectively. Three companies owned by engineering consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff have received $15,296,560.

Compared to the paychecks consultant groups are receiving, the salaries of top CRC bosses seem paltry. Project Director Richard Brandman earns only $16,250 a month.

Of that $40 million price tag, $4.9 million has gone to six public relations firms. Opinion pollsters Davis, Hibbitts, and Midghall received $73,493 for one poll of 800 voters, while other payments include $267,430 to Luna Jiménez Seminars (a firm specializing in diversity training) and $3,627,986 to EnviroIssues, the public involvement firm that has also worked on Seattle's embattled Alaskan Way Viaduct project.

Southeast Portland State Representative Jules Kopel Bailey served on the state transportation committee last year that nixed $30 million in funding for the CRC project, only to see Governor Ted Kulongoski slip the money back into the budget without a legislative vote.

"When Oregon's economy is struggling, do we want to be spending $30 million on studies and consultants or do we want to focus on job creation?" asks Bailey, who runs his own consultancy firm Pareto Global. "And I say that as a consultant."

While public outreach is key to any major development process, some involved with the CRC project say the outreach has more resembled marketing.

"Most of the people who have talked to me, people who have tried to be involved in the project, say they feel like their views were dismissed," says Metro President David Bragdon, who was one of the four local leaders (including Portland and Vancouver's mayors) who signed a letter in January requesting a six-month independent review of the CRC plan. Oregon and Washington's governors rejected their idea, saying that kind of second look would create unacceptable delay. "If they would solve the engineering and financial issues, then the PR problems would go away," says Bragdon.

Key project members including the Bicycle Transportation Alliance and leaders of the Environmental Justice Action Group turned against the process last fall over complaints that their ideas fell on deaf ears ["Changing Gears," News, Sept 6, 2009].

"Public input is essential to the process," says project spokeswoman Carley Francis, responding to criticism over the outreach and project budget. "A five-mile project requires a lot of gathering of data." Francis is paid $68,016 a year.

In response to local and national politicians' concerns about the budget, the staff refined the bridge last year from a $4.2 billion 12-lane design to a 10-lane $2.6-3.6 billion plan.

Supporting the megaproject has its political rewards. In one example, construction unions who will benefit from the bridge's construction have endorsed Metro president candidate Rex Burkholder, who supports the current design, and have donated thousands of dollars to his campaign.

Burkholder's opponent Bob Stacey, who vociferously opposes the bridge, trails Burkholder's campaign donations by nearly $8,000 and has zero union endorsements.

East Portland State Representative Jefferson Smith, who has pushed for a cheaper, better-designed bridge, says the CRC is "the best organized lobby effort" he has seen in his 10 years of political work in Portland. "This is a scary project to challenge," says Smith.