Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler Calls Columbia River Crossing's September Deadline into Question

Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler is calling into question the ambitious September-or-bust timeline given by backers trying to sustain the ailing Columbia River Crossing.

In a terse letter (PDF) sent today to Gov. John Kitzhaber's top adviser on the project, Patricia McCaig, Wheeler says CRC staff are "going to have to make a great leap forward in a short period of time to provide legally adequate and reliable information to the Treasury and the people of Oregon."

McCaig is at the helm of a revamped attempt to build the CRC—one that includes new Interstate 5 bridges, Oregon interchange expansions and light rail to downtown Vancouver—despite Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declaring the project dead on June 30. That's when Washington lawmakers walked away from a funding bill to pitch in their half of $900 million in state funding for a $3.4 billion megaproject.

But, as WW reported on July 17 the project managers kept the project alive by continuing to pursue key permits, including one asking the Coast Guard to grant permission to build a bridge that's too low for some major waterway users. On Aug. 6, McCaig told The Oregonian the CRC, scaled down to $2.75 billion and paid for by Oregon taxpayers and tolls from commuters, is still in play.

The CRC says it must have a project in place by Sept. 30 to meet federal funding deadlines.

But Wheeler's letter lists dozens of questions that he says the project has failed to address, and is "especially concerned" about meeting that September deadline. Wheeler writes that communication between the Columbia River Crossing team and his office has been inconsistent.

"We didn't know about the new proposal until it ran in The Oregonian," says James Sinks, Wheeler's spokesman. "We're talking about a project that could have far reaching ramifications for our credit rating and for taxpayers. We're asked to do a thorough analysis, and part of that is having the time to do a thorough analysis."

The letter makes it clear McCaig told the treasurer's office on Aug. 8 that it needed an evaluation by September. (Wheeler's last evaluation, released in July 2011, blew a $600 million hole in the project's toll projections.)

But Wheeler's questions show that since then, CRC staff has failed to supply even the most basic information to his office. The treasurer is still waiting on answers to nearly every aspect of the project's financial plans: tolling, federal funding and Oregon's debt capacity.

Wheeler asks about updated toll costs new estimates on traffic diversion to Interstate 205. He asks if there has been an evaluation of the new risk to Oregon as it takes on the financial backing of the entire CRC. He asks: Who will be responsible for managing and tracking the additional risk, and what money would back any shortfalls in tolling or construction overruns?

"What assurances do we have that federal FTA and formula funding will materialize under an Oregon-only plan?" he writes.

If the CRC is to continue, the Oregon Legislature must meet to remove stipulations it put in the bill it passed in February approving the state's $450 million. One stipulation was that Washington pay its fair share of the bridge costs. Another is that an investment grade tolling analysis be completed and that Wheeler sign off on it.

State Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) was the author of some of the stipulations.

He told WW on Friday that he hasn't made up his mind on how he'll vote on any changes to the CRC's funding bill just yet. But he adds that he's "pessimistic" that it will come together in six weeks.

"The purpose of those provisions is to protect Oregon," Bentz says. "We need to go back through and make sure the underlying reasons for requiring Washington's participation six months ago haven't changed. If nothing has changed, then looks to me like my pessimism is well founded."

McCaig, whose pivotal role in pushing the CRC forward was the subject of a WW cover story, remains under investigations for potential ethics law violations for potentially failing to register as a lobbyist and for a potential conflict of interest in her work as both Kitzhaber's top adviser and a consultant paid by the CRC's top contractor, David Evans and Associates.

WWeek 2015

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