The people running the Columbia River Crossing project veered into Orwellian territory last week when they announced they had found $100 million in savings that could be cut from the cost of the giant freeway bridge project.
Several media outlets, such as the Portland Tribune and the Portland Business Journal, swallowed the news whole. The Columbian's headline was taken almost verbatim from the press release: "Update: CRC Cuts $100 Million From Cost Estimate."
That's not much of a trim from the Interstate 5 freeway bridge and light-rail project's previously estimated cost of $3.6 billion.
But here's what made this "news" weird: CRC officials had already announced the same savings last April—only to repackage the news with a straight face last week.
CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney acknowledges the $100 million in "savings" doesn't add to that announced earlier by Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. She says the project has added new costs since then but also found new savings.
"They are the same net numbers but not necessarily for the same reasons," Putney says.
This recycled âgood newsâ comes just as the massive project needs better publicity.
In July, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler issued a blistering report that found CRC staff vastly overstated traffic estimates and lacked a sound plan to pay for the project. WW has reported the project's own records show that it won't fix many of the problems it's supposed to solve ("A Bridge Too False," WW, June 1, 2011).
Last week's "savings" come amid preparation for the CRC's Final Environmental Impact Statement, the encyclopedic analysis and rationale for the project.
WW looked to see what those changes might mean. They mean millions in hidden costs.
The document is accompanied by a risk analysis designed to evaluate the consequences of virtually every conceivable calamity, including what some observers consider the biggest threat to the project—that it won't get funded.
The finding: The cost of one year's delay is $57 million. The project is supposed to break ground in 2013. But Oregon and Washington haven't approved their contributions of $450 million each, nor OK'd the higher taxes necessary to pay for it. Washington lawmakers have also yet to approve the tolling that is crucial to the project, and Clark County voters can still torpedo the light-rail component.
Costs from inevitable delays—measured in years—more than wipe out the "savings" in Friday's press release.
Portland economist Joe Cortright also sees a troubling shift in the project's approach to federal funding.
The feds dole out transportation money in two ways. One is through earmarks, the practice whereby Congress ties money to a particular project. Earmarks are scarce in the current fiscal and political environment of Washington, D.C.
The second is through "formula" dollars, which are allocated by population. These funds pay for transportation projects all across Oregon.
Critics—including Oregon lawmakers from all over the state—fear that the CRC could crowd out other projects.
Cortright says there's reason for concern: The finance plan says "federal formula funds potentially could be used for the CRC project."
The plan, he says, undercuts the CRC's argument that the project won't hurt funding for other Oregon projects. "Advocates have traded on the idea that the CRC is a special project and that will get funding from a special pot," he says.
The CRC's Putney says Cortright's fears are misguided. "Nothing has changed in our approach to formula dollars," she says.
Rep. Matt Wand (R-Troutdale), a construction lawyer who serves on an interim CRC oversight panel, says if Cortright is correct, lawmakers will have concerns.
"Every legislator will have to re-evaluate with how the CRC competes with projects in their district," Wand says. "From my district and my perspective, I would have a hard time coming to the conclusion that CRC creates jobs in my community. We have transportation needs in East County that will create local jobs.â