CRC staff closing up shop after a decade

Project's failure tough for those who devoted years to bridge replacement

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The Columbia River Crossing's downtown project office is approaching its final moving day, and it looks the part.

A recent afternoon saw boxes sitting in hallways. Maps and other documents lay stacked against walls. Other areas were simply empty, as they have been for months.

But CRC Project Director Kris Strickler's corner office looked as if it hadn't been touched. The space was still orderly and tidy. Pictures and other decorations still hung neatly on the wall.

In other words, Strickler hasn't started packing just yet.

"I've really been focusing my time and energy on making sure we get a proper closeout," Strickler said. "I don't know whether that's nostalgia after years of work, trying to maintain some semblance of that, or just the right thing to do."

That doesn't mean the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement will again come back from the grave, Strickler said. He insists this is a "hard shutdown" as workers close down the project for good. Officials have said the process will wrap up completely by May 31.

Workers began shutting down the $2.9 billion project this month after the Oregon Legislature adjourned without authorizing funding for the CRC. Leaders had been pursuing an Oregon-led version of the project since Washington walked away in 2013.

With both states having now pulled the plug, CRC officials appear to be shutting doors they left ajar last year. Strickler said the project will withdraw permit applications that are incomplete. The project's lease at Vancouvercenter, where the CRC has occupied an entire floor of office space, will end May 31, he said.

But other loose ends — including approved permits, mitigation agreements and a controversial light rail contract between C-Tran and TriMet — remain in limbo, neither active nor terminated.

Meanwhile, the people who devoted years to the CRC will let go of an effort that ultimately ended in failure.

"Everybody is going through their own sense of a grieving process for this," Strickler said.

Loose ends

When the Oregon Legislature drove the final nail in the CRC's coffin when it adjourned March 7, it was clear project managers were ready for the outcome. Statements and shutdown plans were announced within minutes.

CRC leaders began preparing for that possibility in the week before the legislative session ended, Strickler said.

The remaining project workers are summarizing, cataloguing and archiving a decade of work that saw more than $193 million spent on planning. The process involves more than a half-million files, Strickler said.

Much of the CRC's staff moved out after Washington pulled out of the project last year. With nearly 100 people working on the project before that, fewer than 30 are now, Strickler said. That number will continue to drop in the coming weeks, he said.

By the end of May, workers will haul out computers, servers, furniture and other supplies, he said.

The CRC's demise also leaves in its wake a set of unfinished financial and legal proceedings that likely won't be resolved as cleanly.

Last fall, C-Tran and TriMet inked an agreement spelling out how the two agencies would operate light rail in Vancouver as part of the CRC. The swiftly approved contract sparked outrage among CRC opponents, who said the agreement represented a bad deal for Clark County, as it advanced a bad project.

But the contract only applies if the CRC materializes. With no project, the agreement isn't active, said C-Tran community outreach manager Katy Belokonny. And while the two agencies could agree to terminate the contract, no conversations to that effect have happened, she said.

Last year, the CRC also signed mitigation deals to pay three large manufacturing companies who would be hurt financially by the project's bridge height. Officials agreed to pay a combined $86.4 million to Thompson Metal Fab, Oregon Iron Works and Greenberry Industrial, which all operate facilities at Vancouver's Columbia Business Center.

Like the light rail contract, those deals only apply if CRC construction actually happens. They can be terminated by the manufacturers after 2016, or by the states at any time. But no further work is planned on those agreements, said CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney.

At least two lawsuits also remain in limbo. Oregon Iron Works challenged its mitigation payout after details of all three were publicly released; Portland neighborhood groups and others challenged the project's environmental review as inadequate.

"We thought that the project was going to be a disaster economically and fiscally," said Steve Cole, acting president of the Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

No regrets?

Critics of the CRC often focused on its huge cost and plans to extend light rail to Vancouver and toll drivers on Interstate 5. A bungled bridge design gave opponents even more ammunition when planners drew up a bridge with just 95 feet of clearance, then scrambled to raise it to 116 feet. (The existing I-5 Bridge spans offer 178 feet of clearance when lifted.)

Despite that and other missteps, Strickler maintained that CRC planners came up with the best product they could.

"While everybody will have an opinion about a certain element that maybe could have changed … I really don't think that as you go through a process like this, you can come up with a better project," Strickler said.

"Given the same timing, given the same amount of work effort, I think you'll end up in the same spot, to be honest with you."

Strickler noted there was never one decisionmaker on the CRC. He attributed its failure to a multitude of factors, including a drawn-out process, a difficult political climate and funding challenges. The project was repeatedly delayed before leaders finally declared it dead.

"From my perspective, there was a bit of a perfect storm," Strickler said.

Current and former CRC staffers gathered at a Vancouver restaurant to share stories during a "celebration of work" shortly after the shutdown began. Strickler said he'll continue to oversee the closeout before thinking about his own future.

As an employee of the Oregon Department of Transportation, Strickler could be reassigned by the agency, he said. But he doesn't know where he'll land next.

Strickler, who spent 10 years working on the CRC, said he's put his own grieving on hold until the project is folded up. Part of that process is helping other project employees through their grief, he said.

At some point, he'll pack up his own office.

"I find myself wanting to make sure things are done correctly and appropriately," Strickler said. "Maybe that's my closure."