In Our View: CRC Ponders Slimmer Plan

Initial cost could drop to $2.45 billionwith fewer interchange improvements

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Columbia River Crossing officials appear to be emphasizing a new component — harsh financial reality — in planning a replacement for the Interstate 5 Bridge. A CRC staffer told Oregon legislators last week that a scaled-down, phased-in version of the $3.1 billion project reflects “the reality of the times,” and a revised price tag of $2.45 billion is being considered.That’s encouraging. As we’ve editorialized before, if phasing in this project greases the funding wheels and expedites construction, then go for it, even it means higher construction costs later for the postponed components. But what’s not encouraging is evidence from Vancouver forensic accountant Tiffany Couch that the CRC is plagued by widespread contract markups and cost overruns.

As for the reduced “CRC Lite” version, don’t get too excited about that “savings” of $650 million. It’s kind of like your spouse bragging about getting a half-off deal on a new Rolls Royce.

According to The Oregonian, Patricia McCaig of the CRC told Oregon lawmakers last week: “We hope you’ll go forward with the $450 million (from Oregon) and the full build. But the reality is, we’ve clearly been directed by (Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber), the public and conversations with you to go for a smaller project. That’s the reality of the times.”

But nothing is certain yet. Exactly which components of the project will be postponed has not been finalized, and how the two different states will respond is a big variable. The respective legislatures could decide differently on how much to contribute.

What we do know is that the scaled-down plans include the same new bridge that is shown in the Locally Preferred Alternative, plus an extension of Portland’s light rail system into Clark County, with a terminus at Clark College. Thus, the best parts of the project remain in the initial work. And if the phased-in approach is taken, initial contributions from each state would drop from $400 million to $300 million. Postponed would be four new interchanges in Vancouver and an extensive replacement project at Marine Drive in Portland.

We wish the CRC had been this flexible earlier in the process. Even more fervently, we wish the CRC would respond more compellingly to mounting evidence of out-of-control awarding of contracts, forgiveness of blown deadlines and repeated extensions of costly consultant work. Couch’s report — delivered on Thursday to legislators in Olympia — cited markups on billable hourly work by consultants. Couch is paid by local anti-CRC activist David Madore. Washington state Secretary of State Paula Hammond said Friday, “We just disagree with every one of her accusations.”

Washington politicians appear to be accepting — or strongly supportive — of a scaled-down CRC. They’re motivated mostly by the get-’er-done mind set and a willingness to let successors sort out funding woes in the long-term future. That makes sense to us, too.

So it’s “Giddyap!” on design and construction of the bridge but “Whoa!” on the wildly variable awarding of consultants’ contracts.