CRC might take two years longer

Report says new I-5 span’s completion may not be until 2022

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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The Columbia River Crossing may take two years longer to complete than planners thought a year ago, with recent estimates for a completion now stretching as far as August 2022.

The cost of the delay — caused by missing several key deadlines in late 2010 and also the revamp of the bridge design this year — is already included in the current $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion estimate for the project, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

But as recently as Friday, the CRC maintained that the project was still on track to start in 2013 and be finished between 2018 and 2020.

The new completion dates of August 2021 to August 2022 were listed on the last page of a 134-page Cost Estimate Validation Process released this month. The document is part of an annual analysis of the project’s risk factors conducted by the Washington State Department of Transportation.

The same document from last year put the project’s completion from June 2019 to January 2021.

Crossing spokeswoman Mandy Putney said that the CEVP is a nationally recognized cost estimating process that the state uses for many of its large transportation projects. Changes happen year to year in timeline and cost estimates as plans become more clear, she said.

“It’s a snapshot in time, we use the best information we have when we do it as a way to stay current and assess our estimates,” Putney said. “It’s a rigorous process considering risk and opportunity that allows us to manage the schedule. We have a lot of confidence in the process.”

But Columbia River Crossing critic and Portland economist Joe Cortright challenged the CEVP’s effectiveness. He pointed out that the April 2010 estimates showed that the final Record of Decision would be handed down in December 2010 — now the project expects the federal go-ahead this December, a year later.

“This error shows that they can’t accurately predict how long tasks scheduled for the next 18 months will take, and this project as planned will now stretch out over more than a decade,” he wrote in an email.

He called the risk prediction process complicated and elaborate.

“It has lots of numbers and a fancy, incomprehensible name,” Cortright said. “But it’s just wrong.”

The CRC sent a news bulletin on Friday, lauding $100 million in savings the CEVP also said it found, due to more certainty in construction costs and the cheaper deck truss bridge style chosen by the governors of Oregon and Washington in the spring.

The CEVP’s cost estimates for the crossing, despite the extra two years added to the schedule, show little change.

Also, construction itself is still expected to take just as long, Putney said: Work will start in late 2013 and finish by early 2021, with the tail end of work into 2022 involving the demolishing of the old bridges.

Risk factors

But the state’s assessment also includes numerous risk factors that could cost taxpayers millions.

Among the scenarios listed in the lengthy document are a one-year delay in financing — a risk that would cost an estimated $53 million in inflation and increased overhead costs.

Putney said financing — pulling together $900 million from Oregon and Washington, and receiving more than $1 billion each from tolling and the federal government — remains one of the key variables at this stage.

“Collectively, (the CEVP) is saying there’s a risk of funding delay,” she said. “At this point, there’s a bit that we still don’t know. The panel of people who are participating in this workshop, this is their best guess at the probability.”

Among the findings in the state’s evaluation included a “significant risk” that the Washington Legislature won’t give tolling authority for the bridge — meaning that funding for one-third of the $3.1 billion-plus project would be jeopardized.

It points out that five of the nine Clark County legislators oppose tolling and that getting one party to agree to funding may be a Catch-22, since all sides seem at risk of balking without funding approval from others.

“Tolling authority will be critical to pursue federal funding (one-third of project funding),” the CEVP states. “However, legislators will be uncomfortable granting tolling authority (which will provide the required one-third local funding) unless other funding mechanisms are in place for CRC. Federal piece won’t come without state funding.”

Still, the risk assessment says there’s only a 25 percent chance that tolling won’t be approved.

Cortright pointed out the document is missing any reference to November’s Initiative 1125, a measure championed by Tim Eyman that would ban variable price peak-hour tolling, a key part of the tolling plan for the Vancouver-Portland crossing.

When the CEVP panel convened in May, very little information about the initiative was available, Putney said.

Financing isn’t the only thing that could put a kink in the light rail tracks over the Columbia River.

Court fight expected

There’s also danger that legal challenges to the final environmental plans could cause delays of up to a year, at a cost of $19 million. But the analysis said there’s only a 10 percent chance of that happening.

While the state says there’s a 100 percent chance that the Columbia River Crossing’s environmental plans will see a court fight, it says it’s more likely that they will continue without delay, and face $3 million in legal costs.

“With any (environmental) process, that’s a risk,” Putney said. “With complicated projects, it’s not surprising to see that was a risk that was considered. We think there’s low probability that the challenge would be successful. We think it would have a minimal effect on schedule.”

But Cortright said it may not matter. He said the CRC is constantly changing its schedule, and then saying it’s on track to meet it’s “current timelines.”

He pointed to a quote from Oregon State Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett from Friday.

Garrett said in a release: “The direction last spring from Gov. (Chris) Gregoire and Gov. (John) Kitzhaber allowed us to move forward on a solid path to meet the current schedule.”

“It’s a statement that’s carefully crafted to mislead,” Cortright said. “And if there are further delays in the future, well then, they’ll just adopt another new schedule and it will be the ‘current schedule.’”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.