A Bridge Too False

Turns out most of the case for the $3.6 billion Columbia River Crossing Isn't true.

If anyone should love the idea of creating jobs and boosting the Oregon economy, it's Katie Eyre Brewer. 

Eyre Brewer is a freshman Republican representative from Hillsboro, as well as a former leader of the local chamber of commerce and the planning commission, where she got chummy with big Washington County employers like Intel, Solarworld and Genentech. 

She won her House seat with big campaign checks from lobbying groups such as Associated Oregon Industries, the Oregon Business Association and Associated General Contractors.

Eyre Brewer, 45, is also a CPA for Harsch Investment Properties—the Schnitzer family real estate empire—and has plenty of experience analyzing complex financial deals.

Yet Eyre Brewer is saying no to the state's single biggest job-creation plan: the proposed $3.6 billion Interstate 5 bridge project between Oregon and Washington, known as the Columbia River Crossing.

The state's most powerful interests want the project: big business (including Eyre Brewer's top campaign donors), labor unions and Gov. John Kitzhaber.

Eyre Brewer is standing up to the project's backers for a simple reason: She thinks the arguments for the Columbia River Crossing are flimsy, ill conceived and often untrue. 

"Before I got here, I thought the important questions about the CRC had been asked and answered," Eyre Brewer says. "I was terribly surprised."

She is not alone. More than 20 lawmakers—Republicans and Democrats—have raised hard questions about the project. They say Oregon hasn't taken a serious look at the project's risks or at cheaper ways to fix the traffic problems at the Oregon-Washington border.

In the current legislative session, lawmakers have debated the proper size of chicken cages, whether it's OK to use plastic bags, and what kind of dirt should be named the official state soil. But they have only glanced at the project known as the CRC.

Lawmakers supportive of the project introduced a toothless measure, House Joint Memorial 22, which urges Congress to fund the CRC but doesn't commit a single dime of state money—yet.

Eyre Brewer and critics oppose even that feel-good memorial, saying if it passes, backers could claim the Legislature supports the CRC. March hearings on HJM 22 exposed growing skepticism and opposition to the project.

"We've had no substantive debate on the project," says State Rep. Mitch Greenlick (D-Portland), a CRC critic who calls the project "a steamroller headed off a cliff."

Neither Eyre Brewer, Greenlick nor any of the growing number of CRC opponents deny there is a traffic problem between Portland and Vancouver. 

But the specter of the CRC brings Oregon to a defining moment. If built, it would be the biggest transportation project since the 1966 completion of I-5 and—in modern terms—would rival the construction of Bonneville Dam.

Yet Oregonians have failed to grasp the possibility its leaders might dump billions on a massive road project that emphasizes cars over mass transit and, as the state's own records show, relies on faulty assumptions and won't fix the traffic problem.

WW looked at the central claims CRC backers make. Here's what we found:

Myth No. 1: 

Spending billions on a new I-5 bridge project at the Columbia River will solve congestion.

Anybody who drives from Portland to the 'Couv at rush hour knows trying to cross the Columbia can be a disaster. Radio traffic reporters use the phrase "slowing at Delta Park" more often than they say their stations' call letters.

In hopes of unclogging the bridge, the CRC—a partnership between Oregon and Washington—would create a new freeway span, widen I-5, improve seven major interchanges and run light rail to Vancouver. As a lot of CRC critics say, it's not so much a new bridge as a massive freeway project that just happens to cross a river.

To make the CRC happen, Oregon lawmakers will eventually need to approve $450 million as the state's share. That money doesn't include the $126 million Oregon and Washington have already spent on planning. (Much of that money was wasted chasing a bridge design a February 2011 bridge review panel called "not a viable option.")

CRC supporters say the congestion costs the region millions a year by tying up freight that travels along I-5. Oregon Department of Transportation figures show $40 billion worth of freight moves across the existing bridge every year—sometimes slowly.

"This is the worst freight bottleneck in the nation," ODOT Director Matt Garrett told lawmakers March 28 during a hearing for House Joint Memorial 22. 

Garrett's boss, Gov. Kitzhaber, echoed his claim. "Commerce is increasingly impacted by congestion at a pinch point now considered the worst spot anywhere between Mexico and Canada," Kitzhaber said in an April 25 speech at Hayden Island.

The congestion is real. But Garrett and Kitzhaber are wrong.

Inrix is a Kirkland, Wash., firm that collects and studies traffic data. In 2010, Inrix ranked the Interstate Bridge 214th in the nation for congestion. On the I-5 corridor alone, the bridge trailed far behind five Los Angeles bottlenecks.

Most of the traffic crossing the I-5 bridge, ODOT records show, is single-occupancy vehicles heading south out of Clark County in the morning and then home again in the afternoon. "This is a project primarily for the benefit of Vancouver commuters," Rep. Ben Cannon (D-Portland), a CRC critic, testified on March 28.

Let's say Oregon and Washington ignore critics such as Cannon and move forward with construction. How much time would those Clark County commuters save each day heading to work across this $3.6 billion highway project?

One minute.

That's right: A 2010 governors' independent review panel found the massive project will shave exactly 60 seconds off the peak morning commute.

And here's why: The Interstate Bridge and nearby interchanges are just one bottleneck. The project does nothing to fix the choke point at the Rose Quarter, five miles south, where I-5 narrows to two lanes.

Today, the bridge actually serves as a traffic-control device by slowing the flow of cars headed toward the Rose Quarter. A wider bridge with streamlined interchanges will simply create a bigger jam down the road. 

Last summer, the governors' review panel said that failing to address the Rose Quarter congestion would be like hooking a garden hose to a fire hydrant.

"Questions about the reasonableness of investment in the CRC bridge because of unresolved issues to the south [the Rose Quarter] threaten the viability of the project," the panel wrote in July 2010.

The proposed bridge will charge a toll of at least $2 in each direction. So see if this makes sense: A commuter living in Vancouver could pay $1,000 a year in tolls for a big, wide bridge—and not get to her Portland office more than a minute sooner than she does now.

Patricia McCaig, a consultant to the CRC project, says the project offers a wide range of improvements, and it would be a mistake to zero in on selected details and miss the big picture. "You can focus on any small measures, but the project has real and tangible benefits," she says.

Myth No. 2: 

We have to build a bridge because the traffic is only going to get worse.

ODOT and the Washington Department of Transportation say the number of vehicles crossing the Interstate Bridge in 2030 will be 184,000 a day—that's a 45 percent increase over today. That flood of additional vehicles, they say, means the five-mile stretch around the Interstate Bridge needs more capacity.

Traffic did increase steadily until the middle of the last decade. More than anything, the case for the CRC is built on an assumption it would continue.

Here's the problem for CRC: It didn't.

Joe Cortright, a Portland economist critical of the project, looked at ODOT's traffic projections and compared them to how many cars actually crossed the river. 

The CRC backers projected traffic would increase about 1.3 percent a year from 2005 until 2030.

But from 2005 to 2009, Cortright found, traffic over the bridge declined nearly 1 percent each year. In fact, fewer vehicles crossed the bridge in 2009 than in 1999. 

ODOT officials don't dispute Cortright's findings, but they note bridge traffic ticked up slightly in 2010. 

Still, nearly 15,000 fewer cars a day use the bridge today than the CRC said would be the case. 

ODOT's Garrett says the phenomenon is temporary. "It is typical for traffic volumes to decline during a recession and to rise during boom periods," he wrote in a Jan. 21 letter to lawmakers. 

Cortright, who has been hired by Plaid Pantry to analyze the project, counters that the dip began three years before the economy tanked. And he says high gas prices—which have more than doubled since ODOT made its projections—have permanently shifted drivers' behavior. 

"It's very apparent that the traffic decline had everything to do with the big run-up in gas prices," Cortright says. "It's not a local phenomenon. It's national. And even as gas prices declined from 2008, driving has not gone back up.” 

Myth No. 3: 

The current bridge is too dangerous.

As any parent knows, when logic fails, try fear. 

"I recognize the importance of replacing the Interstate Bridge to address a wide range of public priorities," Kitzhaber said April 25 when he helped unveil the latest design for the bridge. "First and foremost, safety."

Proponents claim the safety concerns are twofold: seismic danger and crashes.

Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro) invoked the Japanese earthquake in recent CRC testimony. "If there's a big quake off the Oregon coast, the [Interstate] bridge would be rendered inoperative," said Starr, a CRC supporter. ODOT's Garrett amped up that point. "If there's a big shake, that bridge will come down,” he told legislators. 

Earthquakes are a risk in Portland. But if Oregon gets hit with a massive quake (experts say "the big one" could be a magnitude 9.0), many bridges will become scrap metal. 

The Interstate Bridge was built in 1917. The second set of lanes was added in 1958, when the older one was refurbished. So you might think the Interstate Bridge would be the first to go.

Not according to ODOT's own reports. The agency's data show there are more than two dozen I-5 bridges in Oregon in worse shape than the Interstate Bridge, including the Marquam Bridge over the Willamette River. 

The Marquam is rated a lot lower for its ability to withstand a big quake, despite being built in 1966. No one seems in a big rush to claim that bridge is unsafe or to replace it.

Another claim CRC backers like to make is the number of crashes on either side of the Interstate Bridge. They often exaggerate here as well. 

"Currently, the I-5 Columbia River bridges have the highest incidence of crashes of any highway segment in Oregon," Portland Business Alliance lobbyist Bernie Bottomly told lawmakers in written testimony on March 28. ODOT's Garrett supported that claim with a PowerPoint presentation that included slides claiming that the Interstate Bridge had the "highest crash locations on I-5 in Oregon."

Again, false. ODOT's own stats show that both the Marquam and Fremont bridges have higher crash rates than the Interstate Bridge, and other stretches of Oregon highways see far more crashes per mile traveled.

The CRC's McCaig says it's important to look at the big picture. "There are nearly 400 crashes a year in the bridge area," she says. "That's twice the rate for urban freeways."

What's important, she says, is to realize that substandard interchange spacing, a lack of highway shoulders and frequent bridge lifts are dangerous and cause congestion. 

“Safety matters in terms of a functioning system that  keeps people and freight moving,” she says.

Myth No. 4: 

We have a plan to pay for it.

CRC supporters think they'll get $1.4 billion from tolls, about $1.3 billion in federal money, and $900 million from Oregon and Washington. 

The money from the feds and the states is far from certain. But even if the money comes through, projected toll revenues are shaky. 

Patricia McCaig, the governor's adviser on the CRC, says that the project's budget is solid and has been vetted by transportation finance experts.

"It's in no one's best interest not to do diligent, thoughtful, rigorous and conservative work looking at these numbers," McCaig told lawmakers on March 30.

Both states would borrow heavily to pay for construction and use toll revenue to repay their lenders.

As noted earlier, traffic projections are already way off. Cortright says that creates two kinds of risk.

First, it may make potential lenders skittish—and they might demand higher interest rates. Second, if traffic is less than projected, then the states may not have enough toll money to make their interest payments and would have to look elsewhere to cover the costs.

Either way, Cortright says, the project becomes more expensive than backers say. "What it means,” he says, “is the project can’t pay for itself.” 

That prospect scares some lawmakers who have reviewed the numbers. "I think the traffic counts are faulty," Sen. Chris Telfer (R-Bend), a CPA and member of the Senate finance committee, told WW. "That creates a serious problem for the financing plan."

What's the answer?

In April, Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire resolved what at first seemed to be the remaining big CRC question: What's the bridge going to look like? Should it be a Golden Gate-like landmark, or a utilitarian slab like the Glenn Jackson Bridge on I-205? (They chose the latter.)

That debate was in some sense a misdirection—like a street-corner game of three-card monte. By focusing on aesthetics, the public missed the real question: Is the project as currently conceived worth doing at all? 

Many CRC critics want Oregon to look at smaller, less-expensive steps that could accomplish more for less.

"This project has just spiraled out of control," says George Crandall, a Portland planning consultant who has urged CRC proponents to reconsider the plan. "Are we really looking at the real problem and the right solutions?"

If, as proponents say, congestion and safety are the top concerns, Oregon and Washington could toll the existing I-5 bridge. That would reduce traffic by nearly 15 percent immediately, according to CRC studies, and pay for seismic upgrades to the existing bridge.

ODOT could also provide incentives for carpooling and express lanes for trucks. And it could build a separate local traffic bridge for Hayden Island, reducing congestion on I-5 near the Interstate Bridge. 

Of course, none of those 21st-century approaches would allow ODOT to do what it and its political benefactors want to do: build stuff. 

Whether the CRC gets started or is forced  back to the drawing board should ultimately be in the hands of the Oregon House. That's because any new tax measure—and that's what will be necessary if Oregon kicks in $450 million—must start there.

Eyre Brewer, the freshman legislator from Hillsboro, will be waiting with a giant "stop" sign.

"We need to ask the overarching questions," Eyre Brewer says. "Have we identified the problems we are trying to solve, and are we proposing the best solutions? I just don't think they've made that case."

We're ODOT — Trust Us

If the CRC were to go forward, the Oregon Department of Transportation would be the lead agency for all construction on this side of the river. It would be a far more complex job than ODOT has tackled in decades. But the agency does take on big projects. Two current ones give some observers cause for concern.

The first is ODOT's ongoing effort to realign U.S. Highway 20, between Corvallis and Newport. It's a fiasco. 

Engineering failures have led to landslides, and giant concrete supports to elevate the highway have tipped. ODOT originally said the project would cost $110 million. Today it's not close to being done and the price has hit $230 million.

"This project has faced unique challenges," ODOT spokesman Patrick Cooney says.

Closer to home, ODOT's second-biggest ongoing project is in Southeast Portland, and it, too, has cost far more money and taken much longer than originally anticipated.

The project? Rebuilding the Southeast Grand Avenue/Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard viaduct on McLoughlin Boulevard just west of Division Street.

In 2002, ODOT estimated the cost of replacing a short and straight stretch of elevated highway at $32 million. If the CRC is like building a house, the viaduct project is akin to nailing two boards together. And yet, as that project inches toward completion later this year, ODOT figures show it will end up costing about $95 million—three times the original budget. It's also at least two years behind schedule.

ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson says there are good reasons the project ended up so different from plans.

First, he says, the scope of the work changed significantly. Instead of renovating the viaduct, ODOT determined it had to replace it. Asphalt costs rose dramatically, and seismic fixes required an additional million pounds of steel. The need to keep two lanes open in each direction complicated construction, as did the discovery that the viaduct was built on 66 feet of old fill from sawmills.

Thompson says the delays and cost overruns are not a reflection on ODOT, nor should the viaduct experience be used to generalize about what could happen with the CRC. Each project, he says, is unique.

"People tend to forget the caveats and complexities, and remember only the original estimate,” Thompson says. “But the scope of the job changed.” 

Rep. Katie Eyre Brewer expressed concerns about ODOT's previous performance in her March testimony on House Joint Memorial 22. That earned her a follow-up visit from ODOT Director Matt Garrett. She says she wasn't satisfied by his explanation as to why project costs significantly exceed original budgets.

"They say sometimes the projects grow," Eyre Brewer says. "I can't speak to whether that is mismanagement, but their history of cost overruns is enough to make you question them." —NJ

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