CRITICISM OF THE STATE'S largest transportation project, the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing (CRC) to Vancouver, has mostly rallied around how expanding the bridge would harm the environment and livability along the already dismal I-5 corridor.
But if recent news has shown anything, it's that anyone who pays taxes in Oregon—even those who want the largest bridge built as fast as possible—should be keeping a close watch on the project.
Need convincing? Okay!
Argument: It's a money sinkhole.
Oregon and Washington are hacking their budgets to the bone, with Governor John Kitz-haber cutting jobs, slashing Oregon Health Plan coverage, and eliminating almost half the state's beds for juvenile offenders.
Even in that climate, Oregon and Washington have allocated $131 million to the CRC project over the past seven years. The project has spent $117 million of that cash, with $4.9 million going to pollsters and public relations firms (including $50,000 to a company called "Wongdoody").
What did those millions buy? The CRC has spent years designing and promoting a bridge design that, this month, a hand-picked panel of experts declared was seriously flawed and should be canned ["Bridge Fail," News, Feb 10].
Critics argue that funding the CRC takes money away from other needy projects: A 2008 study showed that 179 Oregon bridges were "structurally deficient" and estimated the cost of repairing them at an average of $4 million each.
During the current legislative session, vice chair of the revenue committee Representative Jules Bailey says he doubts the state will allocate more money.
"To be frank, I don't think [the CRC] wants to subject their funding to the legislative process," says Bailey. However, the project is competing for $400 million in federal New Starts funding.
Counterpoint: Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Director Matt Garrett says the $117 million was not wasted because it was spent on environmental studies and other processes that would have been funded regardless of the specific bridge design. "We are exactly in the right spot," he writes, via email.
Argument: It bankrolls its own supporters.
The Columbia River Crossing Coalition is the group that provides a reliable counterpoint to criticisms levied at the big bridge.
In media ranging from the New York Times to the Oregonian and Portland Business Journal, the coalition, which registered as a corporation in Washington in 2008, is described as a "business-backed coalition." But the group also receives money from public agencies that both direct and advise the CRC: The Port of Portland has paid $50,000 in dues since 2008, and TriMet has pitched in $2,000.
The coalition displays the Port and TriMet on its long list of supporters on its website, but fails to note that the support is financial.
Chris Smith, a Portland planning commissioner and transportation activist, calls the arrangement "unusual": "I've never heard of an advocacy group for a project like this being funded by the government," says Smith.
"The Port's job is to work in 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.
Counterpoint: The Port says it's consistent with its mission. "We often advocate for road-improvement projects that help decrease congestion and provide for the cost-effective movement of goods," writes spokeswoman Martha Richmond.
Argument: Its management is a dud.
On the heels of the announcement that the current bridge design needed to be nixed, the Mercury broke the news that the director of the CRC, Richard Brandman, did not have his contract renewed—as of February 9, he had to kiss his $16,250 monthly salary goodbye. But instead of turning the ailing project over to an entirely new team, Oregon and Washington's governors have asked the same state highway officials monitoring the project to pick a new design, and they've given them just three weeks to do it.
"The fundamental problem that ODOT has made is treating everything like it's a PR problem rather than an actual issue they should fix," says ex-Metro President David Bragdon, who was deeply involved with the CRC for years before taking a job in New York last fall. "The highway department should be part of the team, not running the team. Anyone who really wants a project should be pressing for complete overhaul of project management. Why continue to back a team that has so horribly failed?"
Smith agrees that the recent setbacks show a failure of management. "Having the state highway department in charge of a project that really affects a community seems backwards to me—it should be Metro, Vancouver, and Portland that are designing this project, not the state highway department," says Smith.
Counterpoint: "The project and the DOTs did not make decisions in a vacuum. To imply such is most disingenuous," writes Garrett. The CRC Coalition's president, Brian Gard, says the changes made to the design show "good and proper management" as the team listens to concerns and adapts. Plus, Gard says, the project is incredibly complex."I would rather cut people some slack and be pleased that we're moving forward rather than being overly critical."