In response to criticism from four local leaders over the Columbia River Crossing's (CRC) impact and bloated budget, this week Oregon and Washington's governors announced an eight person committee would review the project's budget and performance goals.

Several people have criticized the panel for including no Oregonians, but hey, it's another day, so here's another criticism of the CRC: chair of the panel, Tom Warne, was executive director of Utah's Department of Transportation when some projects eerily similar to the CRC created controversy in that state.

For the past nine years, Warne has traveled around the country chairing expert review panels like this one but for projects like the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, the Hood Canal Floating Bridge and Seattle's 520 Floating Bridge.

But before that, at the Utah Department or Transportation, he got the ball rolling on two big freeway projects: the I-15 and the Legacy Freeway. Warne brags on his website that as chief in Utah, he was "responsible for the $1.59 billion I-15 Reconstruction Project which has become the benchmark for large highway construction projects."

Tom Warne
  • Tom Warne

In some Oregonians' opinions, that project was the benchmark for how NOT to plan a freeway. In a case called Davis v. Mineta, the I-15 freeway project wound up getting slapped by a judge for having a flawed environmental assessment: the freeway planners had not looked at enough alternatives to their freeway plan, said the judge. That's exactly the criticism local officials have of the CRC. Freeway planners were set on building the big bridge and refused to seriously evaluate smaller, more sustainable alternatives.

When Metro President and outspoken CRC critic David Bragdon got wind of Warne's past, he said the appointment seemed "downright Orwellian." "In my humble opinion, it would be downright crippling to this new committee's credibility if it turns out the chair violated the very same environmental laws in Utah that the Oregon and Washington highway divisions are alleged to be violating here and now with the CRC," says Bragdon.

More on Warne—including his response and thoughts from the governor's office—below the cut.

Asked about the I-I5 project having to go back to the drawing board on its environmental assessment, which was a shorter form of the official Environmental Impact Statement the CRC is doing, Warne replied, "I suspect that every department of transportation in the United States has had to redo environmental documents at one point or another." Warne says that as the head of the review panel, he will be objective. "The fact is, our view will look at all these aspects of the project and we are totally independent of what has happened to date on the project."

The governor's office also shrugs off the importance of Warne's history with I-15 in Utah. "I don't think that would have any merit on that work that he's doing," says Governor Kulongoski's spokeswoman Anna Richter-Taylor, who also points out that the review committee is not a decision-making body. "They will be checking the work done to date on the project and be a very public and transparent body."

But local transportation and land use lawyer Tom Buchele says he uses Davis v. Mineta frequently as an example of precedent-setting case law. "It's really rare to have the Department of Transportation lose a case like this. In this case, the big issue is a failure to consider an adequate range of alternatives. In particular, one of the alternatives they didn’t look at in Mineta was phasing on things, which is an issue with the CRC. Why not see what would happen if you tolled it first and see what impact that would have? Or build an arterial bridge?"

When Warne was at the helm, the Utah Department of Transportation also began work on the Legacy Freeway, a six-lane freeway expansion that would have sliced through the Great Salt Lake's wetlands, which sparked a lawsuit.

Marc Heileson, of the Sierra Club's Utah chapter, says the Legacy Freeway had a happy ending. "It would have caused more problems of urban sprawl and bad development," says Heileson. After Warne left the Department, though, the freeway planners actually started working with citizens and environmental groups. The six-lane freeway became a four lane freeway with transit that set aside preserved wetlands. "It was something that started bad, but there were citizens that were willing to challenge the bad idea and work with the state and the state was willing to work with us, it turned out as a happy ending."