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Transportation analyst John Charles spoke at the “Bridging the Gaps” event on June 4 in Vancouver. Charles is the CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy research organization that focuses on state and local issues in Oregon. Here is an overview of his remarks from the event:

1:15 “Over time I’ve come to see that the project, as originally or as currently conceived, is fatally flawed, and we should do something completely different.”

1:37 “The common perception is that this is a bridge project, but according to the draft finance plan, as I read it, the CRC is a light rail project. First and foremost, it’s a light rail project. The interchange improvements located miles north and south of the river have been thrown in to increase the total cost and therefore mask the amount of money that is being asked of the Federal Transit Administration for light rail.”

2:15 “They want to ask for $850 million. They’re not making this ask to the federal highway administration if it was a bridge/highway project. No, the actual ask is to FTA – the transit bureaucracy. I overlooked that the first time I read the finance plan. I didn’t pick up on it until the second time I went through it. But the big ask is to FTA. They’re asking for the $850 million, which would be 91 percent of the total cost of light rail. Well no one, no local sponsor gets 91 percent federal share. Those days, if they ever existed, are long over.”

4:54 Charles talks about the system set up with the CRC project* to add more projects so the total cost raises, making the cost of light rail seem like a smaller slice of the larger pie. “So under this method of calculation, you don’t worry about cost benefit analysis. The cost is the benefit. The higher the total cost, the more you can slide the transit ask in and make it look small in comparison.”

5:40 “Currently, there are three through lanes in each direction. If we build the CRC project, there will be three through lanes in each direction. That’s not an accident. Refusing to provide motorists capacity that they would like, and are generally willing to pay for, that’s by design at least south of the river. If you can punish motorists by withholding the capacity they want, charging them, and then siphoning the money off for a slow train they don’t want, then that’s a two-fer.

6:23 “Even if elected officials were willing to add more capacity, the mega bridge concept of shoving all future traffic down the I-5 corridor is fatally flawed because there’s no place for that traffic to go when you get to the Freemont bridge.”

7:17 “The local planner dogma in Portland of building up and not out is also fatally flawed. We need to actually disperse traffic, provide more options, as we’ve done with the Willamette. We don’t just have two bridge crossings over the Willamette in Portland, I think we have nine.”

7:50 “In crafting any kind of cost-effective alternative, you first have to strip out the rail element. There is no version of light or heavy rail that makes any sense, anywhere, at any time.”

8:21 “The existing I-5 bridge can be updated for seismic repairs at a modest cost, and this should be done. Don’t waste a good bridge.”

8:34 “The so called ‘s’ curve problem with barges can mostly be solved by modifying the downstream rail bridge, which will eliminate most delays caused by the lifts.”

8:51 “We should plan for another highway bridge, either four lanes or six lanes. I don’t have a strong feeling about that.”

8:57 “West of the I-5 bridge [a third bridge] should be connected to the Oregon side to Highway 30 and with an improved Cornelius Pass Road, which is already being considered.”

10:48 “We should be looking seriously at building a bridge crossing at I-84 and 181st Street in Gresham, which would come over to 192nd. It could be a modest little arterial bridge – could be four lanes and a sidewalk.”

11:26 “If you have four bridges instead of two, you’ve got more direct ways to get across, and you have two modern bridges that help you in the event of the earthquake. That’s not if we’re going to get one, but when we’re going to get one.”

11:57 “There’s nothing inherently wrong with tolling bridges, tunnels, turnpikes – in fact everywhere else in the economy…you’re paying as you go. That’s the way the economy works.”

13:53 “In other contexts, if done properly, as it’s done elsewhere in the economy, market-based pricing is something we should embrace. It can be and has been used beneficially in the highway and bridge and tunnel sector, and eventually that will be the future of road finance. It’s not being proposed properly here, but it could be.”

* 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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