Citizens expect government to be fiscally responsible. Regarding the Columbia River Crossing, Washington legislators are being asked to allocate $450 million toward a $3.5 billion megaproject.
The CRC has spent $170 million so far on a $50 million “maximum” contract to design a replacement bridge. We’ve not purchased the first steel I-beam or poured any concrete footing; $170 million could have built almost half the Interstate 205 Bridge today. (The I-205 Bridge cost $170 million in 1982, or $400 million in today’s dollars). In spite of growing opposition, the CRC is moving forward, now spending more than $3 million per month.
A private citizen hired forensic accountant Tiffany Couch to investigate, and to date CRC planners have not produced financial statements required by state or federal law. Six of her reports indicate the CRC project will cost taxpayers more than $5.5 billion once the cost of tolls, interest on debt, and maintenance and operation is considered. Southwest Washington commuter tolling will pay for a large portion of Oregon interchanges (more than $200 million), which have been allocated toward bridge costs. The project includes additional upgrades in Oregon including $50 million toward the Gresham light-rail maintenance facility and upgrades to Portland’s Steel Bridge.
From 1926 to 1982, four major bridges were built across the Columbia River, with heights ranging from 140 to 210 feet. The CRC is designed at just 95-116 feet in order to accommodate Portland’s light rail, which a majority of Clark County voters have repeatedly rejected. Three Southwest Washington businesses representing thousands of good-paying jobs presently located upriver from the proposed CRC location are seriously threatened due to inadequate bridge height. Any new crossing must accommodate current and future river users.
If we accept light rail, we’ll be financially tied to TriMet, which has a $1.1 billion deficit in its retirement/pension obligations. If light rail comes to Clark County without an operating agreement with TriMet, how much of their deficit would our citizens be expected to pay?
The CRC plan includes $3.3 billion in tolls. Since a high percentage (some estimates are up to 70 percent) of traffic using the Interstate 5 Bridge are residents of Southwest Washington, it seems unfair to me that $2.3 billion (70 percent of $3.3 billion) will come from the pockets of our local families. That’s $2.3 billion unavailable for spending at local businesses. Some toll estimates are $2,000 per year per car for the next 45 years!
For these reasons and more, a majority of legislators representing Southwest Washington have expressed concerns with this design. Bridge proponents tell us it will take a decade, at additional cost, for a redesigned bridge. This is a myth. Kris Strickler, CRC Oregon project director, testified in Salem last February, stating it’s a 6-18 month process to perform a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, at which time the CRC project would be back in line for funding. The Interstate 35 bridge in Minneapolis makes this point. The original bridge collapsed in August 2007. Thirteen months later, a $234 million replacement bridge was opened.
Alternatives to consider
Earlier this session, I introduced HB 2025, which would direct the Washington State Department of Transportation to prepare a new CRC design alternative and SEIS. The majority party in the House refused to hear the bill. I also offered the intent of the bill in amendment form to the House Transportation Operating Budget. It failed along a party line vote.
Here are important alternatives to consider:
The Oregon Department of Transportation indicates the current I-5 bridge is good for another 60 years.
Existing spans can be upgraded to current seismic standards ($100 million).
Construct a third bridge ($400 million to $500 million).
CRC documents indicate actual bridge cost is just $528 million.
Align swing span on BNSF rail bridge with high point of I-5 bridge to eliminate 95 percent of bridge lifts ($200 million).
Given the significant financial needs of our state, there’s little support for a $3.5 billion mega-project with questionable accounting practices and $20 million of undocumented, non-allocated spending. A proposed audit by the Senate will reveal more to taxpayers and legislators. Answers are needed before we spend more on this project.
Liz Pike is a first-term state representative serving the 18th Legislative District. She has been an independent business owner in Clark County for 17 years.