February 12th, 2014 12:45 pm | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: Transportation, Legislature, Business, Politics

Clearing Up Misinformation Ahead of Today's Columbia River Crossing Hearing


Ahead of today's hearing on the Columbia River Crossing Project, CRC proponents have clouded the debate with two pieces of misinformation.

First, the economic consequences of not moving forward are being over-stated.

On Feb. 6, The Oregonian published another endorsement of moving forward with the $2.8 billion, Oregon-only version of the project. Here's part of that editorial (emphasis added).
The inadequate I-5 bridge, a known bottleneck in part because of a roadway lift to accommodate river traffic passing below, is central to a multimodal transportation hub serving the Port of Portland. The Marine Drive intersection just south of the bridge, whose rebuilding is part of the proposed CRC, serves the port, which annually ships billions of tons of Oregon-grown or Oregon-made goods to foreign markets. Freight-haulers using the I-5, the West's main north-south highway, already schedule themselves around predictable slowdowns and hours of congestion at the Columbia River. The free movement of freight along the I-5, and the ability by freight trucks to deliver to the port, are essential to sustaining and growing the Oregon economy.
There are two problems with this argument.

1. The Port of Portland's total throughput last year, according to Port figures, was 12 million tons. That's substantially less than "billions." The Oregonian corrected the figure in the editorial, originally published last Friday, on Tuesday at 5:21 pm.

2. While there's no question the corridor between the Moda Center and State Route 14 in Vancouver suffers serious and persistent congestion which impacts freight mobility, a traffic study produced last summer by CDM Smith, a consultant to the CRC project, put some actual numbers on how many trucks that use the bridge to get to the Port of Portland's container terminal (Terminal 6). Here's what CDM Smith found in a report dated June 25, 2013.
Port of Portland described what is known about truck trips and I‐5 Bridge crossing and the Port of Portland generates a relatively small portion of the trips over the I‐5 Bridge. For this reason, no additional data were collected for the tolling and revenue study. There is no data available on the origin and destination of truck trips at the Port of Portland. It was reported that there are relatively few truck trips going to and from the Port of Portland. According to the Port Import Export Reporting Service (PIERS) approximately 10% of the 500 trips at Terminal 6 would use the bridge. (Source: Telephone conversation with Port of Portland.).
In short, the Port-bound trucks needing a new bridge are hypothetical trucks.

Then on Monday, The Oregonian resurrected another favorite CRC boogeyman—safety.

There's no denying the current bridge (actually two bridges) is old, seismically vulnerable and unfortunately includes a lift-span that periodically halts vehicle traffic. But as the Oregon Department of Transportation's biannual bridge study has repeatedly found, there are other crucial bridges—the Marquam, for instance—that are in worse shape. In a Feb. 10 story called "Obsolete Interstate Bridge Must Keep Standing if Columbia River Crossing Fizzles," ODOT's top bridge expert addressed safety.

The story asked a key question: could the current I-5 bridge be seismically retrofitted?

Bruce Johnson, ODOT's top bridge engineer, provided an answer (emphasis added).
Johnson said no one has estimated the cost of seismically retrofitting the Columbia River bridges, but he believes a project would be extremely expensive. A new substructure would have to be built under the existing bridges for perhaps $500 million or $600 million, which would about equal the cost of the Columbia River Crossing’s bridge portion, Johnson said. The trusses would have to be strengthened, he said, and the drawbridge towers would need to be rebuilt for several hundred million dollars more.
But as readers who have followed the CRC project's history pointed out in the comments after the story and elsewhere, the assertion attributed to Johnson is not accurate.

In face, in 2006, the CRC produced a 142-page document called "Panel Assessment of Interstate Bridge's Seismic Vulnerabilities." Among the questions the panel addressed was "what is the cost to seismically upgrade the existing bridges?"

Here's the answer:
The Panel discussed and developed their opinion of estimated raw bridge construction costs to retrofit both bridges. This opinion ranges from $88 million to $190 million. This opinion of cost increases from $125 million to $265 million when design, permitting, right-of-way, construction inspection and management, agency oversight, and contingencies are added.
One of the members of that panel? ODOT's Bruce Johnson.

WW asked Johnson about the seeming discrepancy between the assertion attributed to him that no estimate had been made and the estimate the CRC produced, which became part of the 2008 draft environmental impact statement, the document that is the basis for moving forward on the CRC.

Johnson replied via email that the 2006 numbers are very preliminary and did not include many costs that  tackling a retrofit would have included.

"If the Panel cost assessment had included the cost needed for a full project from start to finish, especially costs to develop an EIS and preliminary design work, you can see the cost would have easily been twice or three times the amount quoted," Johnson wrote in an email.

It's worth noting that since the DEIS was published in 2008, the total project's estimated cost has declined from $4.3 billion to $2.8 billion. That estimate comes from ODOT, which has never undertaken a project anywhere near the complexity of the CRC but has consistently advocated for plowing ahead, even as Washington refused to fund the project and many of the underlying traffic projections have proven to be wildly inaccurate.

Meanwhile, the estimated cost of seismic retrofit—an option ODOT dislikes—has doubled or even tripled.

That is the context for today's 3 pm hearing on what would be the largest single public works project ever undertaken by ODOT.

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