Local View: Case for new I-5 Bridge built upon faulty data

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Last week, reports from several sources confirmed what critics of the proposed five-mile highway expansion and new mega-bridge across the Columbia River have been saying for several years: The Columbia River Crossing Project (CRC) lacks any accurate estimate of how much traffic would actually use the expanded highway and bridge and does not know how much toll revenue such traffic would generate to pay for the project.

No prudent public official, and no responsible newspaper (see 7/22/11 Oregonian editorial), should be endorsing a proposal to spend almost $4 billion on this mega-project absent accurate and current information.

Ever since the CRC released its Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project, critics have argued the document seriously overestimated future traffic volumes and significantly overstated likely toll revenues needed to pay for the most expensive public works project in the region’s history. Portland economist Joe Cortright was among the most thoughtful and persistent of such critics, offering testimony at dozens of public hearings.

Public officials repeatedly ignored Cortright’s analysis, sometimes suggesting he and other members of the public had no business even suggesting the “experts” at the CRC could be wrong. Most recently, Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder insisted on noting “for the record” at a Metro meeting that Cortright’s criticisms of CRC’s traffic estimates had not been “peer-reviewed” and therefore should not be taken seriously. Now we know Burkholder, and many other CRC backers, owe Cortright an apology.

As early as 2009, a report prepared by Oregon Department of Transportation and CRC consultants found the models being used by the CRC “are not able to confidently forecast travel patterns for projects that are considering tolling.” Much more recently, the Oregon state Treasury found that “[k]ey assumptions in the traffic and toll revenue forecast used in the 2008 DEIS are now outdated … .”

Both consultants retained by the state Treasury agreed that the CRC’s analysis had significantly overstated likely future traffic volumes and toll revenues, and the expected toll revenues were likely to fall short by as much as $598 million. One of those consultants, RB Consult, bluntly concluded: “CRC traffic and revenue forecasts simply look too high,” and “do not appear to have been revisited/revised in the light of recent trends.”

Perhaps most significantly, that same consultant explained the CRC’s “overestimates” were not a product of the recent recession: “Traffic volumes have flattened off over the last 15-20 years; well before the current recessionary period … the flattening off is a long-term traffic trend … .”

Fatal flaws

The CRC is currently circulating a “Draft Final Environmental Impact Statement” among many public agencies and elected officials, whose approval of the CRC mega-bridge is legally required or politically necessary. Many of those agencies and officials have already endorsed the proposed multi-billion dollar project based on the information and analysis in this Draft FEIS. Perplexingly, that analysis contains the same outdated and hugely inaccurate traffic and toll revenue forecasts.

Those endorsements now look irresponsible and reckless. Without accurate traffic forecasts no one can reliably estimate either the project’s cost or the future environmental impacts of both the current bridges and the CRC’s proposed new mega-bridge. That is why the National Environmental Policy Act specifically requires an Environmental Impact Statement to use “high-quality” information, rather than admittedly outdated and incorrect traffic volume estimates.

Despite these fatal flaws, the CRC’s backers — including the Oregonian’s editorial page — insist we need to act now, these wildly inaccurate projections are good enough for an analysis of the proposal’s environmental impacts, and we can figure out later exactly how we will pay for this new, multi-billion dollar project.

It is difficult to reconcile such arguments with the recent events in Washington, D.C. where our elected leaders desperately struggle with numerous earlier decisions to spend money first and figure out how to pay later.

The citizens of Oregon and Washington are entitled to know, before our elected leaders make their decisions, whether accurate traffic and toll revenue forecasts demonstrate we can afford to spend billions of dollars, and whether a new mega-project is even needed.

Tom Buchele is Managing Attorney & Clinical Professor at Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center (PEAC) at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland.