The Columbia River Crossing has occupied much of Gov. John Kitzhaber's attention since his election last fall.
Kitzhaber spoke to President Obama about federal funding for the multibillion-dollar project when Obama visited Oregon late last month. And Kitzhaber has met twice in Washington, D.C., with federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on the CRC, the first time in November after Kitzhaber's election and again this past weekend during a National Governors Association meeting.
All of which makes two lines in a Kitzhaber press release last week all the more significant.
"The Governor has asked Patricia McCaig to be his lead advisor on the Columbia River Crossing Project," read a Feb. 21 statement announcing the hiring of Clackamas County Chairwoman Lynn Peterson as the governor's transportation adviser. "Ms. McCaig has been serving this role during the transition and will continue this work into the Administration."
But unlike other Kitzhaber advisers, such as Peterson, McCaig is not—and will not—become a public employee, says Kitzhaber's spokesman, Tim Raphael.
âThe state will not be paying her,â Raphael says.
Instead, McCaig, who earned $72,000 for managing Kitzhaber's campaign and working with his transition team, will be drawing pay from another source for her bridge work.
Raphael says McCaig will continue to be a paid consultant to David Evans and Associates, a Portland engineering firm that is by far the largest beneficiary of the $118 million that CRC records show project sponsors have spent so far.
CRC figures show David Evans has earned nearly $27 million from the project, about 2 1/2 times more than the next largest private contractor, Parametrix. McCaig has earned about $131,000 for her advocacy work between September 2009 and July 2010, when she became Kitzhaber's campaign manager. McCaig serves as a "subcontractor to David Evans to conduct strategic communications, public information and outreach," Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman Patrick Cooney told WW via email.
Raphael says Kitzhaber's desire to see the new bridge built is aligned with the preparatory work done by ODOT, the entity that hired David Evans. (ODOT and the Washington Department of Transportation are working together to engineer the new bridge.)
"The governor wants to get the project moving, and she's a driver on that," Raphael says.
Some observers think it is unusual, however, for a private consultant whose paycheck comes from a company that has a financial interest in completing a project to also be designated as the governor's adviser on that same project.
One CRC critic says it is naive at best to assume the public interest is the same as the interest of a private, for-profit corporation, such as David Evans.
"I can't think of another instance in which somebody has worked in the governor's office in similar circumstances," says Joe Cortright, who worked as a legislative staffer for a dozen years before becoming a private economist at Portland's Impresa Consulting.
"It's kind of baffling to me that you would do that," says Cortright, who has blasted the assumptions underlying the bridge project.
There's also a level of opacity to McCaig's role that advocates for government transparency find troubling.
McCaig is not registered with the Oregon Ethics Commission as a lobbyist and there was nothing in the announcement of her advisory role that would tell citizens who is paying her.
Raphael defends McCaig's dual role, which he says she also performed under the Kulongoski administration. He says that because ODOT hired David Evans to help bring the long-planned project to fruition, there's no conflict of interest.
"The point is moving the project along," Raphael says. "I don't think there's a distinction between whether [the governor's advice] comes from a contractor or ODOT."
McCaig did not return WW's call.
FACT: Kitzhaber's top adviser for his transition team, Tom Imeson, lobbied for the CRC as a private consultant. Imeson is now director of government affairs at the Port of Portland, one of the project's staunchest backers.