The Columbia River Crossing Coalition is the advocacy organization that speaks out in support of the new I-5 bridge project. In articles ranging from the New York Times to the Portland Tribune and Oregonian, they're described as a "business-backed coalition" that consistently applauds the advances the project is making and pushes to stay on the original timeline.

On their website, the Coalition lists the Port of Portland and TriMet as members—but what's not obvious is that the two public agencies have paid the Coalition thousands of dollars in dues over the past three years. Since 2008, the Port gave the Coalition $50,000, while TriMet gave them $2,000. Both these agencies are partly funded by our tax dollars, which make up four percent of the Port's budget and 55 percent of TriMet's.

Is it in the public interest to bankroll what amounts to a PR agency for the project? Critics say no.

Planning Commissioner Smith says the arrangement is “unusual”: “I've never heard of a advocacy group for a project like this be funded by the government,” says Smith. "If you gave the opponents $50,000 to actually analyze this project, I'm sure you'd have slam dunk reasons for why this project shouldn't go forward."

“The Port’s job is to work of the public interest and the pro-CRC group’s job is to work in the interest of the pro-CRC group and those different goals concern me,” says Mara Gross, policy director at Coalition for a Livable Future, which opposes the current project.

But the Port and the Coalition say the payments are perfectly in line with the mission of a public agency that's looking to fix the I-5 bottleneck.

"The Port’s public mandate is to enhance the region’s economy and quality of life by providing efficient cargo and air passenger access to national and global markets," writes Port spokeswoman Martha Richmond. "Therefore, we often advocate for road improvement projects that help decrease congestion and provide for the cost effective movement of goods on Oregon’s roads." Richmond says the Port has gotten involved in supporting other projects that are good for freight, like deepening the Columbia channel.

"The Port's mission is to support the economy of the region. At virtually every level, among people who are wholehearted supporters of the CRC or people who have concerns about a particular design, there is consensus that a new bridge is essential," says Coalition Director Brian Gard. "This is not something that is political."