John Laird: Yes, CRC costs are high, but don't ignore the benefits

By John Laird, Columbian Editorial Page Editor

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Any way you slice it, $3.1 billion is a lot of money. That's the projected cost of the Columbia River Crossing, replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge and extending light rail two miles from the Expo Center in Portland to Clark College in Vancouver. Add the estimated annual upkeep of light rail in Vancouver (about $2 million or more), and the overall financial burden intensifies. It's easy to see why some people insist the CRC is just too expensive.

I suspect that even if you removed "billion" from the cost and built it all for $3.10, some folks would still hate the Columbia River Crossing.

Others take a more rational approach, through the prism of a cost-benefit analysis. We hear so much about the cost of the CRC, but hardly anything about the financial benefits of a new bridge and light rail. That's unfortunate, because ignoring the potential economic gains of the CRC keeps the debate dry and barren.

How much money could a new bridge save today's freight haulers who battle bridge congestion? Do CRC critics include that in their cost-benefit analysis?

Regarding light rail, in fiscal year 2011, more than 41 million rides were taken on Portland's MAX light rail system. How much money was saved by those riders who didn't pay for gas or parking? Doesn't that matter, when conducting an independent cost-benefit analysis of light rail?

How many Trail Blazers and Timbers fans take light rail to the games? What about commuters? How much do they save on parking and gas? Doesn't that matter?

Then again, I don't think money is all that matters. Many CRC benefits have nothing to do with finances. For example, to a commuter, what's the financial value of getting home to the family 15 to 30 minutes earlier each evening? Hard to say, but for those people, this benefit is crucial.

Then there's the need to provide transportation options for people who can't drive, or don't want to. Many CRC critics will trumpet mightily that there is no such need. Let those nondriving slackers fend for themselves. You know, rugged individualism, American exceptionalism, all that stuff about pulling up bootstraps.

Still, other people believe expanding transportation options makes a community more livable, more connected, more explorable. The value of a senior citizen being able to travel freely in his community via light rail (instead of remaining a shut-in and depending more heavily on social services) might be zero to you. But to that senior citizen -- and to countless baby boomers who are approaching that lifestyle -- the social value is inestimable.

For these folks, it's not a matter of money. It's a matter of mobility.

Remember, too, when you compound these financial and social benefits over the 75-100 year life of a new bridge and light rail line, the $3.1 billion construction cost is viewed in a whole new light.

Wasting money? Really?

On a related subject, let's examine the persistent complaint that $144 million spent thus far on the CRC is an exorbitant amount, and we have nothing to show for it. Actually, it's not that high. According to the Washington Department of Transportation, complex transportation projects typically devote about 8-10 percent of the total cost to planning, design and review. At 8 percent for the CRC, that would be about $244 million.

And anyone who says the CRC has nothing to show for it is ignoring reality. Since 2005, nine river crossings and seven transit components have been considered; a locally preferred alternative, or LPA, was recommended; six jurisdictions approved the LPA; an expert review panel looked at travel demand; an independent review panel approved the project; the project sponsors council (among its many productive acts) refined plans for interchanges on Hayden Island; governors of both states chose deck truss as the bridge design; and NOAA Fisheries officials issued a biological opinion. Those are just a few of the countless noteworthy steps taken by the CRC.

You might not like what they're doing, but to say they have nothing to show for it is simply wrong.