In Our View: CRC: What Not To Do

Audit underscores truth that too often officials careless with taxpayer money

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Let us put aside the partisan rancor for a moment — if that is possible when talking about the Columbia River Crossing — and consider exactly what can be found in the state’s limited audit of the now-defunct project.

The Washington State Auditor’s Office found

$17 million in excess or questionable spending among the $188 million that went into the CRC from 2005 to 2013. Those excessive expenditures mostly fell under the categories of larger-than-usual profit markups to project consultants, and work that was not authorized by contract in advance. At the same time, the report released Wednesday “did not identify any financial misconduct or abuse.”

That, sadly, is the crux of the matter. Some will point fingers and condemn the intransigence that killed the project; others will dance on the grave of the CRC and rejoice in its demise; but the most productive response is to view the auditor’s report and lament that such overspending is all too often regarded simply as the price of government. No financial misconduct or abuse? Perhaps. But the findings emphasize government’s overriding attitude that it doesn’t really count as spending if you’re spending other people’s money — namely that of the taxpayers.

The audit came about after the Legislature approved $200,000 with instructions for the state auditor’s office to examine the CRC. As The Columbian wrote editorially at the time: “Some auditing will be better than none, but it would be preferable for a complete, no-stone-left-unturned examination to take place. Not only do taxpayers have a right to know where the $170 million went, but a full audit would go a long way toward restoring public confidence the next time a multibillion-dollar project shows up on the drawing board.”

The confidence of the public is not to be trifled with. Some of the arguments against the CRC were based upon the belief that government A) Cannot complete any major project without wasting money along the way; and B) Cannot complete any major project without going well overbudget. Those two caveats often are intertwined, serving to consistently erode the faith of the taxpayers.

While the auditor’s office did not identify any financial misconduct, it did call for the Washington State Department of Transportation to examine the policies that led to some of the misspending on the CRC. This echoes calls that have been coming from Republicans in the Legislature, who have insisted that WSDOT policies and mismanagement are partly to blame for what they say are excessive construction costs in this state. Partisan disagreements over the need for WSDOT reform helped kill legislative proposals for a massive gas-tax increase during a special session in 2013 and the regular session this year.

The fate of three recent megaprojects reinforces the need for organizational reform: The state Highway 520 floating bridge on Lake Washington, which has been beset by delays and cost overruns; the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel project in Seattle, which has been at a standstill for months; and the CRC, which spent nearly $200 million without a single shovel of dirt being turned. As state Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, said in the wake of the auditor’s report: “Moving forward, we certainly learned what not to do.”

Yes, we learned what not to do. While some questionable spending might be viewed as inevitable in a project this large, government never should be allowed to become complacent about it. Regardless of one’s opinion of the CRC itself, that is a lesson that should linger from the project.