Oregon Republican Party Chairman and potential 2014 Oregon gubernatorial candidate Allen Alley used to support the $10 billion* Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project (CRC) – that is until he started looking at the details.

Now he describes the CRC as the ultimate “talking frog” – kind of cool, but not good for much.

Oregon Republican Party Chairman Allen Alley doesn

Allen, 57, is a mechanical engineer who co-founded Oregon-based semiconductor firm Pixelworks in 1997. He unsuccessfully ran for Oregon state treasurer in 2008 and for governor in 2010.

Nonetheless, political insiders say Alley – who has not officially declared his candidacy – represents Republicans’ best shot at the governor’s seat since Vic Atiyeh left office in 1987.

That’s why Alley raised some eyebrows when he spoke in opposition to the CRC during a moderated discussion about business and economic issues with Metro Council President Tom Hughes on Dec. 9 before a lunchtime audience at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Beaverton, Ore.

The CRC is a mammoth bridge, highway, and light rail project that will require $1.25 billion in federal highway and transit funds, $900 million in state funds split between Oregon and Washington, and $1.3 billion in tolls. Official CRC estimates range between $3.4 billion to $3.76 billion in capital costs.

Proponents say the project will ease congestion and increase safety with a new, 10-lane bridge structure, improved highway interchanges, and light rail from Portland into Vancouver. Opponents, on the other hand, argue that the mega project is too costly and unnecessarily complex.

Alley reverses position

Among the many issues Alley and Hughes tackled, the topic of the CRC came up when moderator Jim Pasero, a public affairs consultant who advises Alley, asked the two speakers if they believed the CRC was a done deal.

“I hope not,” Alley said.

Alley explained that while he supported the CRC when he ran for governor, it wasn’t until he recently drilled down into the details that he came to believe the CRC won’t solve the problems it promises to.

“It’s a really cool engineering project, but like a talking frog, I don’t know that it’s very useful,” Alley said.

Metro Council President Tom Hughes says the CRC is necessary to ease congestion and improve freight mobility in and out of the Ports of Portland and Vancouver.

Hughes, a retired high school teacher who also served as mayor of Hillsboro, Ore. from 2001 to 2009, said his support of the CRC was one of the primary reasons he beat fellow Democrat Bob Stacey, former director of the conservation group 1000 Friends of Oregon, in the 2010 runoff for the Metro Council president seat.

Pasero said that when making policy decisions that impact business, government typically gives more credence to extreme environmentalist concerns than it does the business community.

Hughes disagreed.

“My support of the bridge resonated with the business community and it did not resonate with the environmental community,” Hughes said. “And the environmental community supported my opponent because, in part, he opposed the bridge.”

Hughes defends CRC

While acknowledging the question of whether the CRC will receive funding, Hughes said he became a believer in the project after talking to the owner of a large Oregon company who said the level of congestion his trucks have to contend with getting onto I-5 is unsustainable.

“The owner asked how long is it going to take to build the bridge and I told him I think longer than most of us would like,” Hughes said. “He said if it can’t happen in the next two years, I’m out of there because I can’t get my trucks in and out of my warehouse fast enough to get product on the road.”

Hughes added that the bridge, at a cost of around $900 million, amounts to less than a third of the overall cost of the project. The rest of the $3.6 billion will go into constructing the interchanges and light rail, “which is an essential component to reducing the congestion…to free both the Port of Portland and Vancouver up, otherwise they get strangled over the next few years.”

Alley says CRC has too much ‘fluff’

Alley said he considers the extras beyond the bridge just so much fluff. He recounted a conversation he had with some transportation people in which he suggested how good it would be to design a transportation system that was the most efficient way to get a single person from point A to B.

“That’s a car,” said Alley.

Video produced by TVCTV in conjunction with the Westside Economic Alliance. It has been edited for time.

* The well-documented cost to taxpayers, if the CRC stays on budget, is $10 billion. This was established by the Cortright Report (PDF) which used data from an independent review panel hired by the governors of Washington and Oregon. (View the panel’s final report.)


See our continuing coverage of the Columbia River Crossing Light Rail project.

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