Columbia River Crossing officials last Friday trumpeted projections by a private consulting firm that claims tolls could pull in up to $450 million more in revenue than previously thought.
The CRC leaked the findings to The Oregonian, which says CRC managers were "heartened" by the news that the $3.4 billion highway project on Interstate 5 over the Columbia River could get anywhere from $1.05 billion to $1.75 billion from tolls.
Translated: CRC officials are now claiming a bridge that cannot pay for itself finally can make ends meet, and that more than $600 million CRC officials couldn't account for has suddenly appeared thanks to new projections ginned up the project's own consultants.
The leak was well timed. The O—rarely skeptical about the massive freeway and light rail project—ran the story just as the Oregon Senate is preparing to vote on the CRC, perhaps as early as Monday.
CRC officials have had a long history of arguing for the freeway bridge and light rail project based on numbers they knew to be out of date, misleading and just plain wrong.
In 2011, a report commissioned by State Treasurer Ted Wheeler showed inaccurate traffic projections meant that the project would come at least $600 million short when it comes to paying down the debt Oregon and Washington will incur to build it.
Here are three things The O didn't mention in its story:
1. The projections are not based on any numbers or analysis that have been made public, nor numbers that have received any independent, outside scrutiny. (WW asked for this detail last week; CRC officials then claimed the numbers didn't exist.)
2. These estimates are not the investment-grade projections done by outside analysts CRC officials have promised. Such an analysis would be demanded by bond buyers —the investors who would eventually loan Oregon and Washington money to build the bridge.
3. The consultant CRC officials paid to give them the rosy projections has a history making disastrously wrong tolling projections.
The company—CDM Smith, formerly Wilbur Smith—made fatal errors in its estimates for two Southern California projects, according to Seattle-based Sightline Institute.
In January, Sightline reported that the San Joaquin and the California Foothills/Eastern toll roads have had their bonds moved to junk status, meaning investors don't think they'll make their money back.
Sightline reports CDM Smith was responsible for the investment-grade analysis on both projects. One initially met CDM Smith's projections for traffic but began faltering in 2006, Sightline says. The other was far behind traffic projections from the start.
From the Sightline report:
"CDM Smith has a good reputation—but that didn’t protect them from producing projections that went badly awry. For SR-520 (the toll project in Seattle) or the Columbia River Crossing to avoid the same fate as the California toll roads, they’ll have to meet CDM’s traffic growth forecasts not just for a few years, but for many years to come."
Economist and CRC critic Joe Cortright says that's not likely. He told The Oregonian that based on CDM Smith's own initial projections, 50,000 to 75,000 of the 128,000 vehicles that cross the I-5 bridge will divert to Interstate 205 once tolling starts.