Much has been written about the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project in Vancouver, WA. For many who live in Clark County or who have been watching this “transportation” project for some time now, it has become a classic example of complete and total incompetence on a scale even impressive by Washington State Department of Transportation standards. This is really saying something since our state has a plethora of WADOT disasters from which to pick and choose. Some memorable highlights include sinking bridges like the Lake Washington I-90 Bridge and the Hood Canal Bridge, the spectacular failure of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the Nalley Valley viaduct screw-up, the bridges to nowhere, the leaking 520 pontoons, overpriced ferry boats, and the recent collapse of the I-5 Skagit River Bridge. However, the ineptitude, corruption, and the scale of the screw-ups associated with the Columbia River Crossing are epic and breathtaking. The only WADOT project likely to compete with the scope of the CRC fiasco is Seattle’s own Big Dig project. Since the drilling hasn’t started yet on this project, we can only tremble in dread at that looming catastrophe and pray things don’t go too awry. For now, the CRC circus has enough drama for everyone.
A short background, for those not familiar with the CRC project, begins with the fact that the I-5 Bridge between Vancouver, WA and Portland, OR over the Columbia River is old. It is only three lanes each way, and it includes a draw bridge to accommodate large ships travelling on the Columbia River. A variety of reasons to replace the bridge have been proposed. Originally, there was a plan to replace this older bridge with a new bridge that could eliminate the current drawbridge feature on the river and help reduce the I-5 bottleneck potential of this bridge. In theory –so far, so good.
There are many debates about the merits of the need to replace this bridge. Can it be seismically retrofitted? Is the drawbridge really such a traffic problem? Should multiple bridges be built over the Columbia River in different locations as recommended by John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute? Should tolls be used to pay the costs?
This current best-case cost estimate is $3.5 billion, but that projection usually gets higher with each new estimate. In order to qualify for federal funding transportation dollars (theoretically totaling $850 million), light rail had to be included in the bridge design. Portland has light rail called Tri-Met, and Vancouver, WA, does not.
You Didn’t Build That
Almost every cliché related to a centrally-planned, government-managed boondoggle exists with this project. Corruption, incompetence, and unfathomable disaster lurk in every nook and cranny of the CRC. Let’s review some classic highlights.
In the beginning, it was estimated that the bridge design process would cost about $50 million. So far, we taxpayers have spent $170 million dollars for a small plastic model and a failed design. Nothing is built. The CRC project is 340% over budget, and the design process is many years past its scheduled date of completion. By WADOT standards, this qualifies as “on time, under budget.”
But outside the dystopian world populated by government agencies, this does not deserve any kudos. We might expect a great bridge design after using so many tax dollars. To make this a true tragedy of incompetence, the “final” bridge design was a bridge too short to allow passage for the very river traffic it was required to accommodate from the beginning. This included ships for several companies located within eyesight of the $50,000-per-month offices of the CRC staff in downtown Vancouver. Apparently, $170 million isn’t enough to cover the cost of having an employee confirm something so obvious. One could imagine someone in the CRC headquarters looking out the window at the passing river traffic and at least verifying that the ships would fit under the new bridge design. Alas, common sense is not part of the CRC saga.
One thing government bureaucrats are certainly good at (in addition to squandering your tax dollars) is shifting the blame. The CRC staff did attempt to blame the FAA for their mistake, but the FAA was unwilling to take the fall. The CRC staff tried to claim that the glide path for the Portland Airport would require their inferior shorter bridge design, but this was not true. We should not worry, of course. We have been assured if we spend another $100 million, they should get the design right the next time. Eventually. Maybe.
The corruption in this situation has been covered extensively on the Oregon side of the border with some excellent articles by the Willamette Weekly (see here, here, here, and here). Additionally, before David Madore became a Clark County Commissioner in 2012, he hired a forensic accountant to investigate the finances of the CRC project. That investigation raised many red flags, among which were gems like the fact that recipients of nearly $20 million (of the $170 million) couldn't be identified. WADOT knows the checks were written, but nobody at the CRC or WADOT can tell us who received these funds. Nothing to see here, we’ve been reassured. The money isn’t lost; the recipients are just unknown.
Many aspects of this situation are morbidly interesting from a coincidence perspective. There was a fascinating video of the mayor of Vancouver running on a “No Tolls” platform and then promptly changing his mind once he was elected. We are certain this had nothing to do with the fact that the engineering company where he worked his day job had a massive increase in CRC billing after his election. We are sure this is pure coincidence.
Washington Taxpayers to Bridge the Financial Gap?
Despite the incompetence, the missing money, the strange bridge designs, the public relations video campaigns on both sides, the CRC project just does not make sense as a transportation option for reducing congestion on the I-5 corridor. As my colleague, John Charles, from the Cascade Policy Institute points out, the CRC project is really about Portland’s slow motion, predictable financial “train wreck”called TriMet (Portland’s own light rail experiment).
As their own financial statements indicate, TriMet is heading over the fiscal cliff. The CRC project is a potential lifeline that might be able to shift at least part of the financial disaster to taxpayers on the Washington State side of the Columbia River. After all, if they can get a light rail line over the Columbia River, then go bankrupt after the ribbon cutting ceremony, Washingtonians can be forced to cover part of the bailout costs. This makes sense for Oregon, but isn’t such a good deal for Washingtonians.
This leads to the next logical question: Why is Governor Inslee so insistent on forcing this controversial project and all the related liabilities on the taxpayers of Washington? It isn’t like we don’t have plenty of transportation projects to do all over the state right now. There is a limited pot of transportation dollars, and there are plenty of other hopeless money pits (520 & Viaduct replacement tunnel, for example) into which those dollars can be poured. The transportation dollars that could go to a real need are now being shifted to cover the escalating CRC fiasco. In the end, everyone else in Washington State pays for unfolding disasters like the CRC project.
Politicans’ Pet Project
There is no doubt that Governor Inslee has wasted much political capital and energy to support the CRC project. He is not entirely alone in this obsessive focus. One example is Washington State Senator Patty Murray’s special act of Congress in December 2009 to blend local toll revenue as “match” funding. Oregon Governor Kitzhaber’s unwavering cheerleading is another example.
However, our newly-elected Governor Inslee has gone the extra mile on behalf of the CRC. During the regular session, he had a special breakfast at the Governor’s mansion with targeted Republican legislators. At that event, he attempted to convince them to support the CRC project and higher gas taxes as a bonus. Governor Inslee also helped bring the US Department of Transportation Secretary, Ray LaHood, from Washington, D.C. to help lobby the State Senate Majority Caucus for more support. Secretary LaHood’s primary argument appeared to revolve around dangling the $850 million in “free” federal transportation tax dollars for the CRC project. Who wouldn’t want that?
When Representative Orcutt (Kalama), Senator Schoesler (Ritzville), and others pointed out to him that paying $3.5 billion for $850 million is hardly a good deal, nor was it good use of tax dollars, LaHood appeared to not understand the math or the problems associated with the CRC project.
On top of these efforts to make the CRC happen no matter what, Governor Inslee took the unprecedented step of vetoing the $81 million WADOT portion of the transportation package that covered the CRC project. He claimed it had too many restrictions, and he was attempting to force the State Senate Majority Caucus to pass $450 million of funding for the CRC without the restrictions. However, nobody is rushing to do this, and it appears to be dead.
Why does Inslee care so much and why is he expending so much of his political capital over this one scandal-plagued project? It is a good question, and outside Inslee’s inner circle of advisors, there may not be a certain answer. However, we have some clues looking at those who surround him.
Primarily, we observe that he appointed Lynn Peterson as his Secretary of Transportation for WADOT. Lynn was at the special breakfast with the recalcitrant Republican legislators, sitting next to Governor Inslee. Her nick-name around the Capital is “Light Rail Lynn.” She is from Oregon where she had been a strong advocate for both Light Rail and the CRC project before she ever moved to Washington. She has a lot of influence on the Governor’s transportation priorities, and the CRC project appears to be at the top of the list. It is clear to many people how Oregon (or at least TriMet) could benefit from the CRC project – if it ever happens - but few can explain any real benefits to Washington. Perhaps Washington’s new Secretary of Transportation needs to be reminded that she works for the taxpayers of Washington now and not the special interests of light rail in Oregon.
How about Governor Inslee’s veto? It isn’t like the $81 million in the WADOT budget is going to disappear. It is still sitting there in an imaginary “lockbox” just waiting to be poured down the drain somewhere. Does anyone really believe WADOT is going to stop paying the employees sitting in those high-priced CRC offices in Vancouver? It seems unlikely. No, the only real tangible effect of the governor’s veto was to eliminate the restrictions placed on this $81 million. There is no doubt that WADOT will continue to siphon many dollars away to fund a new spin cycle of support for the CRC. Who knows? Perhaps a new day will dawn. Perhaps we will find out who received the mystery $20 million. Maybe the City of Vancouver will let the local citizens vote on whether they want to pick up the tab for the CRC disaster, and a bridge that actually will work to reduce traffic congestion can rise from the ashes. This does not seem likely.
We Just Can’t Look Away
Until that miracle happens, we can only marvel at the stranger-than-fiction fiasco called the CRC project. We observe the heroic attempts in Oregon and in our own state to turn Oregon’s light rail mess into a heavy financial burden to the Washington State taxpayer. We should be impressed by the folly of incompetence and the breadth of corruption that has put us in such a place where no reasonable alternative can be considered any longer. We are forced to watch a governor struggle to remember who he represents and attempt remorse amortization for the money already squandered. We should also be impressed by the groundswell of opposition from local citizens, mostly in Clark County, who are standing up to the Central Planners zombie-like scheme called the CRC. It isn’t pretty.
Central Planning never looks good when Utopian theory becomes disastrous reality.