$3M CRC error led to wrong cost estimate

Figure related to future operating cost of light-rail submitted to agency

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The Columbia River Crossing says an error of more than $3 million was the reason project officials gave the Federal Transit Administration an inaccurate operating cost estimate for at least two years.

When the CRC provided its most recent financial summary to the FTA as part of a grant application process, it listed the project's annual future operating cost related to light rail at $12.81 million as of November 2012. That appeared to be a significant jump from the 2011 figure provided to FTA, which was $8.35 million.

But a CRC representative said this week that the 2011 number was given in error, and should have been reported as $11.6 million. The same mistake also led to an inaccurate number in 2010, according to the project.

So what happened? "The wrong cell in the spreadsheet was selected for the report," CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney said in an email. The most recent figure is correct, and the earlier mistakes weren't repeated elsewhere, she said.

Each of those figures, revised yearly, refer to the predicted operating cost of light rail in 2030. The number has grown due to inflation and an uptick in expected maintenance costs, Putney said.

Kris Strickler, the CRC's Oregon project director, has said the change won't affect how tolling is implemented on the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement. The $3.4 billion project would also extend light rail into Vancouver, and rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River.

The CRC has regularly submitted information to the FTA in recent years with hopes of applying for a federal New Starts grant. That's the program CRC leaders are banking on to pay as much as $850 million toward building the light-rail component of the project. But several other funding pieces must first fall into place before that happens.

The CRC has run into strong opposition in the Washington Legislature, particularly the Republican-controlled Senate. And locally, C-Tran board members haven't yet decided how — or if — they're going to come up with the local funding share to operate light rail in Vancouver.

The $12.81 million figure given to FTA is the gross operating cost for the entire light-rail corridor in 2030, in both Oregon and Washington, Putney said.

C-Tran has said it must come up with between $2 million and $2.7 for its share of light rail operations in 2019, assuming fare revenues cover 40 percent of the total cost. Despite the incorrect information given to the FTA, C-Tran had been working with the right numbers, and its assumptions haven't changed, said public affairs director Scott Patterson.

CRC leaders hope to begin construction in late 2014 -- if both states commit crucial funding this year. Oregon has authorized $450 million toward the project, but Washington lawmakers adjourned this year's regular legislative session without doing the same.

The Washington Legislature will convene for a special session later this month.

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro;eric.florip@columbian.com