Still Big, Still Costly

CRC backers claim the $3.5 billion project is "downsizing." That's not true—not even close.

Backers of the proposed $3.5 billion freeway bridge across the Columbia River say they've gotten the message: The project is too big and expensive.

That's why Gov. John Kitzhaber's chief adviser on the Columbia River Crossing, Patricia McCaig, told legislators Jan. 19 the Interstate 5 project is being scaled down.

"We've clearly been directed by the governor, the public and conversations with you [lawmakers] to go for a smaller project," said McCaig, who also serves as a paid consultant to the project's top contractor.

The Oregonian called McCaig's proposal a "bombshell"-: Eliminating freeway ramps would cut the price to $2.4 billion. The headline: "Columbia River Crossing Officials Suggest Significant Downsizing."

That message turns out not to be true.

On Jan. 20, Washington Department of Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond fired off a memo to Washington legislators denying the project was being downsized, citing erroneous news reports. Hammond wrote that the project's price tag would remain the same, but the project would be built in phases "when additional funds are available."

The plan for the CRC has always called for phases. What's different here is that state officials are trying to put a smaller price tag on the first phase, hoping legislators will commit to the project.

McCaig says the CRC team simply proposed a way to get the project started. “That’s what we’ve done,” she said in an email to WW. “A phased approach with some improvements postponed to a second phase, when money becomes available.” 

In other words, Oregon and Washington taxpayers would still ultimately pay for the same project on today's drawing boards.

CRC consultant Patricia McCaig testifies in front of the Jan. 19, 2012 Legislative Oversight Committee on the Columbia River Crossing

The headlines gave CRC boosters a PR victory. But records show the project has not been transparent about another size issue: Just how wide is the bridge going to be?

Critics initially complained the proposed bridge was too wide, and that would encourage additional traffic, harm the environment, and drive up costs.

The CRC's 2008 Draft Environmental Impact Statement showed widths of 99 feet each for the northbound and southbound spans. (The CRC consists of two bridges, with the spans standing independently next to each other.)

The plan called for 12 lanes, six in each direction. Responding to critics, CRC officials said in 2010 that narrower spans could work.  

The December 2011 Final Environmental Impact Statement portrayed the bridge with five-lane spans—if true, a potential savings of tens of millions of dollars.


But did the CRC make a meaningful change in the bridge's size and capacity?

The final report contained hundreds of pages of granular detail—but left out the spans' new widths.

"We just felt like it was too much detail," says CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney. "There was no attempt to try to hide the width."

Putney says the new spans' widths range from 88 to 129 feet.

That means the bridge widths didn't shrink significantly. 

Critics wanted a narrower set of spans that truly reflected just enough room for five lanes. But an examination of the details shows there will still be plenty of room for six lanes or more.

Notably, another bridge project intended to carry about the same number of vehicles as the CRC won't be nearly as wide.

Washington is refurbishing State Route 520 between Seattle and Redmond, a $4.65 billion project that includes a floating bridge over Lake Washington. The 520 bridge will carry nearly as much traffic as the CRC, but with fewer, narrower lanes.

Portland economist Joe Cortright says state officials pulled a bait-and-switch with the CRC: promising fewer lanes but failing to reduce the bridge's lane capacity.

"If it's just routine and prudent to have room for expansion, why didn't they disclose the actual width of the structure?" Cortright asks. "This was a conscious effort to edit out very fundamental information and hide the facts."

The CRC's Putney says the 520 and I-5 bridges aren't comparable because state and federal highway standards are different. She says the CRC will carry more freight and, in turn, need wider lanes.

Cortright notes the 520 project, like the CRC, depends on federal funding and performs a nearly identical function. He says the CRC project's legislative testimony last month—and shell games with bridge widths—are part of a pattern. 

"The [Washington and Oregon] DOTs simply can't be trusted," Cortright says. "They will say whatever they think the leaders want to hear, and then do exactly what they wanted to do all along.” 

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