An investigation into the expenditures and practices of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project has led to a release of a series of reports calling into question the transparency and accountability of the CRC project office. Tiffany Couch, principal of the Vancouver based forensic accounting firm Acuity Group, has just released the 3rd installment in the series which focuses on the questionable costs related to the Ruby Junction maintenance facility and the Portland Steel Bridge. The report also highlights inconsistent and potentially misleading comments made by the CRC Project Director in recent public testimony.
As part of its finance plan, the CRC project is applying for $850 million in funding from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) through its New Starts program. Applications submitted to the FTA reveal that that the CRC is requesting funds for components outside of the originally proposed “bridge influence area” (i.e. the 5 mile I-5 corridor). These components consist of upgrades to Tri-Met’s current maintenance facility at Ruby Junction, as well as improvements to Portland’s Steel Bridge.
The CRC’s cost estimate for upgrades to the Ruby Junction maintenance facility is $50.61 million. Through two recent Tri-Met light rail projects (Yellow Line to Expo Center in 2002 and Milwaukie/Portland in 2012), the Ruby Junction facility has undergone upgrades to expand the facility at a fraction of that cost. The Yellow Line expanded the facility by 17 cars at a budgeted cost of $9.15 million while Milwaukie/Portland calls for an expansion of 20 cars at a budgeted cost of $8.10 million. The CRC proposed to expand the facility to accommodate 20 additional cars. Considering that the cost difference is $40 million more than recent comparable projects, Ms. Couch classifies it as an irregularity and suggests a full investigation by an “agency of appropriate jurisdiction”.
Through various Public Records Requests, Ms. Couch has attempted to account for costs related to the Steel Bridge improvements in Portland; however the CRC project office has not provided any detailed cost analyses or budgets to date. The CRC office’s response to Couch indicated that “Steel Bridge expansion and improvements costs are grouped with other costs in this [FTA} report and thus cannot be found in a specific cost code.” Couch contends that cost estimates can only be “grouped” after a detailed cost estimate was performed. “I don’t understand why they provided documents related to our public records request, yet admitted that the records they were providing would not give us the cost estimates we sought” Couch says.
Ms. Couch’s report also questions the testimony of CRC Project Direct, Nancy Boyd during the Washington State CRC Oversight Committee Meeting on October 9th, 2012. Asked on two separate occasions whether there were any costs related to the CRC project that are outside of the bridge influence area, Ms. Boyd claimed that there were not. Only when confronted specifically about Ruby Junction and the Steel Bridge did Ms. Boyd disclose these components as part of the CRC project. A full transcript of the testimony can be found in Ms. Couch’s report.
Ms. Couch’s report questions whether these project components are actually Tri-Met system wide upgrades being “unfairly allocated” to the CRC project as a result of the possibility of receipt of a large amount of federal dollars.
Ms. Couch closes her report as follows: “Lastly, it is our opinion that costs of the CRC project taking place outside of the proposed 5 mile “bridge influence area” be clearly accounted for and explained to all decision makers (legislators approving funding, local elected officials representing citizens, and citizens who will eventually pay tolls on this project) to ensure ongoing accountability and transparency.”
A full copy of Ms. Couch’s report can be found here:
Exhibits to that report can be found here:
A transcript of Ms. Boyd’s testimony (with corresponding time stamps) can be found here: http://couv.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Ruby-Junction-Testimony.pdf
The entire October 9, 2012 Washington State CRC Oversight Committee meeting can be found here (testimony pertinent to this issue begins at (30.35): http://www.cityofvancouver.us/cvtv/cvtvindex.asp?catID=999&fileID=15671
There are four reports. To see the others, see:
Report 1: State law violations
Report 2: Questionable accounting and contracting irregularities
Report 4: The real cost of tolls and debt