If concerns expressed over the Columbia River Crossing by a key Oregon legislative committee are any indication, the $10 billion* project could be a hard sell with lawmakers in Salem.

That’s important to Clark County residents because the Oregon Legislature is expected to pick up $450 million of the project’s $3.6 billion price tag. The project will replace the current I-5 interstate bridge with a new 10-lane bridge and light rail line, and reconstruct five highway interchanges within a five-mile impact area. Construction is scheduled to last from 2013 to 2021.

Members of the Oregon Joint Committee on Legislative Oversight on the Columbia River Crossing met with CRC staff Dec. 7 in the Metro council chambers in Portland.

Planners hope to fund the CRC through a combination of $1.25 billion in federal transit and highway dollars, $1.3 billion in tolling, and $900 million divided between the states of Washington and Oregon.

If Oregon lawmakers ultimately say no, it would knock a significant leg out from under the CRC’s already tenuous financial strategy.

This fact certainly wasn’t lost on the 10 members of the Joint Committee on Legislative Oversight on the Columbia River Crossing when it convened in Portland at the council chambers of Metro Dec. 7 for a six-hour update on the CRC.

Committee members wanted to know why this project – which has been billed as an economic linchpin for the region – would be worth the investment for Oregon taxpayers.

“One of the criticisms we hear about the project is the significant resources it will require,” said committee co-chair Tobias Read, D-Beaverton. “If we proceed down this path, our ability to fund other needs around the state might be limited.”

It’s all about freight

According to the CRC presentation, the project is fundamentally about improving the movement of truck traffic in and out of the ports of Portland and Vancouver (light rail was hardly mentioned). Of the 127,000 vehicles that cross the interstate bridges on an average day, two thirds are local drivers who enter or exit the highway within the five-mile project area.

The six hours of peak congestion that results is simply bad for business.

“The project really is about freight. It is about their economic interest,” said Henry Hewitt, a Portland attorney who is former chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission. “It is far less about commuters from Vancouver than it is about how do we create a viable economic engine in this region, centered around the ports.”

Kathryn Williams, the business and rail affairs manager for the Port of Portland, told the committee that the Marine Drive/I-5 interchange in North Portland is the most critical freight interchange in the state. On a typical weekday between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., 4,392 trucks carrying goods from corporations like Fred Meyer, Rodda Paint, and Columbia Sportswear use the interchange.

“Within the I-5 corridor, trucks are carrying about 60 percent of the region’s freight,” she said. “With the projected doubling of freight by 2025, trucks are projected to carry an even larger share – about 73 percent of the region’s product.”

Rep. Katie Eyre Brewer, R-Hillsboro, asked Williams why the CRC hadn’t considered building a bypass for the one third of interstate traffic that wasn’t local.

“What about an alternative bypass to automatically remove traffic that isn’t getting on and off within this five-mile influence area and completely circumvent them from this and not go through this billion dollar song and dance?” asked Eyre Brewer.

Williams said a third bridge alternative had been studied, but CRC staff determined it wouldn’t divert sufficient amounts of traffic.

Picking winners and losers

The subject of alternative construction designs became a hot topic as the day progressed. Some committee members grilled CRC staff over how and why certain decisions – including the necessity of light rail – ended up in the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) and whether cheaper alternatives had been summarily dismissed.

CRC Environmental Manager Heather Wills explained that in 2005, the Oregon and Washington governors appointed a 39-member task force comprised of elected officials and citizens from Portland and Vancouver to begin preparation for a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS).

The task force held public meetings and received 70 project components – or ideas – that ranged from the far-fetched (building a tunnel under the Columbia River) to the practical (enhancing park and ride services). These 70 were eventually reduced to 31 components, some of which ended up in one of five alternatives listed in the DEIS.

However, for an alternative to be considered viable, the task force concluded that it had to address six criteria: vehicular capacity, transit (light rail or bus rapid transit), freight mobility, safety on I-5, bicycle and pedestrian travel, and seismic vulnerability of the interstate bridge. If a given alternative ignored one or more criteria, it didn’t make the cut.

Committee members found this “pass/fail” test unnecessarily simplistic and arbitrary.

“It doesn’t have to be one solution that solves everything. It can be a pairing of solutions or alternatives,” said Eyre Brewer. “It sounds like when you pared it down, whatever it was had to solve everything rather than thinking outside the box – looking at financial viability, phasing viability, all of that. Maybe we don’t need a one size fits all.”

Wills said the task force ultimately made the decisions regarding a given alternative. She added that the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process doesn’t initially lend itself to discounting certain options based on cost.

“We would bring everything [to] the task force and share our conclusions,” she said. “We would not drop an alternative until we had the task force’s OK to do so.”

No picking and choosing

The committee kept probing to see whether the project as currently described was an “all or nothing” proposal, or if certain pieces could be pulled out or deferred if certain funding fell through.

Sen. Frank Morse, R-Albany, asked whether CRC planners had considered phasing in elements of the project for the sake of cost effectiveness.

CRC Deputy Director Kris Strickler said cost was a driving force behind presenting five different alternatives in the DEIS, some of which offered bus rapid transit instead of light rail.

“At that time, cost was a factor,” Strickler said. “It was a driver in the discussion.”

Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene, asked if the federal money for light rail fell through, or came in under budget, could Oregon and Washington continue forward with the roadway improvements?

“Would we be able to continue with that and say we’re not going to do light rail because the money went away?” she asked.

Stickler said that to separate the highway improvements from transit would require a reevaluation of the NEPA process. Matt Garrett, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, added that such a scenario wouldn’t fly.

“From a political perspective I think we would compromise the project,” he said.

Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, then asked if the replacement bridge and light rail could be constructed without all the work on the interchanges.

Strikler said there is too much of a marriage between the interchanges and transit to separate them.

Rep. Nathanson took another tack, asking if the interchanges had been prioritized so that if not enough money came in, construction could continue on the most critical ones.

“I hope that what we don’t get is, ‘You have to vote this thing up or down, yes or no, 100 percent of what is presented,’ because if the money isn’t there, if the choice is do it or don’t do it, then we literally can’t if there’s not enough money,” said Nathanson. “I hope we would have information that would help us make hard choices about phasing. This is more important first. I don’t want to hear you have to do 100 percent.”

Strickler said that from an engineering standpoint, it is a complementary system that wouldn’t properly function without one of the interchanges.

But Garrett said phasing certain components of the project is something Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked the CRC design team to evaluate. The locally preferred alternative includes a bridge with light rail, but that doesn’t mean aspects of it couldn’t be built in stages pending cash flow.

“It is not a thumbs up or thumbs down [vote],” he said.

Finally an exasperated Rep. Matt Wand, R-Troutdale, cut to the chase, lambasting the project’s task force for settling on light rail over cheaper alternatives, such as bus rapid transit.

“I see there are alternatives here that are a lot cheaper than a billion dollar light rail project,” he said. “I’m trying to figure out how it is, and who you consulted with, to decide that a light rail to Vancouver that they don’t seem to want is the only transit solution that is preferred.”

Eyre Brewer, an accountant by training, summed up the dilemma she felt as an elected official pondering a future decision on the CRC.

“We, as a Legislature, will be asked to fund an LPA that was not overly sensitive to cost,” she said. “If I’m hungry, I could go to a grocery store and buy something to satisfy that. I could go to a fast-food restaurant to buy something a little bit more than at the grocery store, or I could go to a five-star restaurant and solve that problem. If I want it based on desire, any one of those may fit, but what my pocketbook can afford is something different. And I may only be able to afford one or all three of these choices.

“Maybe this solution will do it, but maybe there was a cheaper one that would [be] a combination of options that weren’t fully vetted in the NEPA process…That is my concern.”

In an ironic twist, ODOT’s Garrett concluded the meeting by announcing that the US Department of Transportation had that very afternoon issued a record of decision approving the CRC’s FEIS.

No one on the Oregon committee clapped.

* 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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