The expert "independent review panel" of the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing project released its long-awaited final report last Friday (while I was blissfully on vacation) and everyone from the governor's office to local media treated the review of the bridge as a rubberstamp of the current process.

But it's not. For a "independent" panel headed by a freeway planner that critics dismissed as "downright Orwellian", the panel's 300-page long final report is surprisingly critical of the big bridge. The panel has actually been refreshingly critical throughout its review (remember when one expert accidentally called the bridge's tolling plan "stupid"?) and the final report points out some significant problems with the big bridge that are far from a rubberstamp.

The finding that headlines and the governor are latching on to is that, yes, the panel found that it is necessary to do something about the I-5 corridor to Vancouver. But is has some serious concerns about the current bridge proposal and its process. The panel wouldn't have taken 300 pages just to say "Good job!"... Here are the major concerns spelled out in the report (pdf):

The $3.6 billion cost estimate of the bridge is not accurate. The design of the bridge has changed significantly since the project staff did an in-depth cost estimate validation process, so the pricetag for the current design hasn't been seriously fact checked.
The local "consensus" about the bridge doesn't agree on much. The locally preferred alternative that politicians and highway planning bigwigs OK'd in 2008 "reflected a very low level of agreement between the parties"... which is why the project is stalled over serious disagreement now.
The environmental impact analysis is seriously incomplete. The bridge has changed so much (especially in regard to its footprint on Hayden Island) since the first environmental impact statement that the panel recommends drafting a new supplemental one. Also unresolved? Environmental justice issues.
The bridge is an untested, experimental design. The CRC staff identified nine bridges around the world that are similar to the "open web" design proposed for the CRC. But the review panel said that none of those nine are actually similar enough to use as a model, writing, "The open-web design is unique with no history of construction or performance." That means the bridge would have to be thoroughly tested, a process that could cost $600,000 and take three years.
Widening the bridge could just make the Rose Quarter the new traffic pinch point. The review panel noted that concerns about pushing traffic south into the Rose Quarter are still unresolved.

Does that sound like they're saying, "Full steam ahead!" to you? Mayor Sam Adams agreed with some of the concerns, applauding the panel for not being a "whitewash."

"It's a lot more critical than I would have expected," says bridge critic and nationally-known economist Joe Cortright, of the report. "They've raised a number of concerns that are very, very serious and go to the heart of this project. They're saying that the bridge that they've proposed, on the budget that they've proposed, on the timeline that they've proposed, can't be done."