In Our View: CRC Out of Control

Contract extensions, blown deadlines all add up to an infuriating track record

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Local transportation officials seem to have plenty of excuses for the out-of-control spending in Columbia River Crossing planning. But observant taxpayers aren’t buying, and the excessive doling-out of tax dollars only serves to fuel observant critics’ strongest claims.

The business-as-usual explanation is the most aggravating part of this problem, which was detailed in Sunday’s Columbian. The well never runs dry when it comes to paying for things with tax dollars. Another infuriating aspect is that private firms are not only awarded no-bid contracts, but are repeatedly allowed to extend the terms of those contracts. It’s one symptom of a much greater problem: government’s inability or unwillingness to properly project costs and then force responsible private-sector parties to work within those parameters.

Here are two examples in the planning for a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge:

■ In September 2008, the CRC’s largest private contractor — consulting firm David Evans and Associates — was awarded a $21.6 million contract with four tasks to be completed by Dec. 31, 2009. Only one task — obtaining a locally preferred alternative — was accomplished by that date, and ultimately the price tag was $30.4 million. That scenario is intolerable in the real world. In the government world, it is common.

■ In May 2010, Evans was given a new task order with many of the same directives, at a cost of $15.8 million with a deadline of one year. But at least $28.4 million already has been spent and the contract was extended to June 30, 2012.

By our count, that’s a combined overrun of $21 million for two jobs, both of which blew through deadlines. Again, part of the problem is a system that allows engineering contracts (unlike construction contracts) to be awarded on a no-bid basis, based on qualifications.

Fed up? So are we. But it gets even worse when you listen to the explanations. Don Wagner, regional administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said of the CRC track record: “It’s not unusual. What is unusual is the magnitude of this project.” That second sentence is correct. The CRC involves several jurisdictions, several freeway miles with a half-dozen interchanges, multiple intermodal transportation needs, a salmon-sensitive river, a bridge and a light rail extension. But the first sentence is outrageous.

“You learn more, you change your planning process,” Wagner said. As taxpayers learn more, they become outraged.

Jay Lyman, transportation business group manager for Evans, said: “The reality of (an environmental impact statement) is that circumstances do change.” Perhaps, but the magnitude of the two examples presented above demonstrate that the CRC didn’t have much of a handle on the circumstances in the first place.

We asked U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler about this issue at a Monday editorial board meeting. “This is why I’m also frustrated with Pentagon spending. I’m tired of being told this is how it’s always been done,” she said. “This is why (the CRC) loses credibility with people.”

And one of those people is Joe Cortright, a Portland economist and CRC critic who said: “Their track record is … they aren’t able to do what they say they’re going to do. And they haven’t gotten to the very hard part of actually building something.”

If and when the CRC gets to that point of construction, there could be some hope for taxpayers, at least on this side of the river. According to Gov. Chris Gregoire’s office, of the hundreds of projects funded by the state’s 2003 and 2005 transportation revenue packages, 92 percent were completed on or under budget, and 90 percent were done on time.

With CRC planning, though, the track record is dismal.