After David Evans and Associates took on its role as the Columbia River Crossing’s largest private contractor, it said it would have the final environmental planning for the $3.5 billion project wrapped up for construction by the end of 2009, for about $21.6 million.
Instead, the job has dragged on more than two extra years, and the estimated cost has grown to $58.8 million, documents show. And time and again, the Portland firm has been granted time extensions and more money to finish the work.
Critics say the escalating costs call into question the CRC’s ability to plan, and highlights the lack of accountability for private consultants.
“This casts doubt on the veracity of their claims that they know how to anticipate problems and risks and manage costs,” Portland economist and CRC critic Joe Cortright said. “Their track record is … they aren’t able to do what they say they’re going to do. And they haven’t gotten to the very hard part of actually building something.”
But project officials say that the CRC’s contracts are no different from engineering agreements they make on any project, and that cost increases are inevitable as new challenges are discovered during the planning phase of a stunningly complex process.
A million a month
As spending continues at a rate of about $1 million a month on planning the Columbia River Crossing, a task that’s now topped $140 million, the lion’s share of that money has gone to David Evans and Associates and its subcontractors.
The Portland company is on track to receive at least $104 million from Oregon and Washington for its services — more than double the original $50 million master agreement.
Project officials said the intricacies of a bistate project that involves a salmon-sensitive river, a light rail extension from Portland into downtown Vancouver, and five miles of highway work have unfolded in a manner that meant more spending was necessary.
“We were moving from this broad environmental look where we sort of know the purpose and need, and narrowing it down with time,” said Don Wagner, who served as co-director of the CRC from January 2010 to April 2011.
Going from 2008, when the number of lanes on the bridges hadn’t even been set yet, to the present, when full plans for the 10-lane bridge are in place, requires twists and turns of study, engineering and public outreach that aren’t free, he said.
“You begin very broad in what you’re doing, then bring it in and start focusing,” said Wagner, who is now the regional administrator for Southwest Washington with the Washington State Department of Transportation.
No competitive bid
Unlike construction contracts, engineering contracts aren’t chosen by lowest bidder. In fact, Evans didn’t even have to put a price estimate on what it thought its work would cost. Instead, it gave its qualifications.
The original call for contractors came in 2005, when WSDOT and ODOT said they were expecting the environmental planning work to cost more than $20 million, while “the total dollar figure will vary upon project requirements and funding.”
The firm and its subcontractors got to work, with a $50 million cap placed on spending. Wagner described it as a “trial period,” but not long after starting to work, the CRC staff was convinced that the consultant was the right fit. It was also aware that it would cost more to get the job done — Evans hit the spending cap in May 2008.
“We knew it was going to be more than $50 million,” Wagner said.
When the final planning started, billings went up.
In September 2008, documents show, Evans was given a new task with four parts:
• Obtain a locally preferred alternative.
• Publish the final environmental impact statement.
• Obtain a full funding grant agreement for light rail from the Federal Transit Authority.
• Obtain a record of decision, the federal clearance that allows construction to begin.
The task order shows the work was to be finished on Dec. 31, 2009, for $21.6 million.
During that time, planners and local agencies picked the locally preferred alternative — a bridge, light rail, a bike-and-pedestrian deck and seven interchange improvements over five miles. None of the other parts was completed.
And the price wound up at $30.46 million.
“The reality of an (environmental impact statement) is that circumstances do change,” said Jay Lyman, transportation business group manager for Evans.
So in May 2010, the consulting firm was given a new task order with many of the same directives: To advance the CRC through the final environmental impact statement, get a record of decision and begin the first phase of design.
It was given one year and a target of $15.8 million. So far, at least $28.4 million has been spent, and the contract has been extended to June 30. While the record of decision was handed down in early December, design work continues.
‘It’s not unusual’
Wagner, the former co-director of the CRC, said that this process of amendments and increases during the environmental planning phase is no different from any other project he’s worked on during his nearly 40 years in transportation.
“It’s not unusual,” Wagner said. “What is unusual is the magnitude of this project.”
Engineering the largest public works project the area has ever seen naturally needs study as it progresses.
The project had to go out and do substantial testing along the river bed, for example. “We had no way of knowing that in 2008,” Wagner said. “We got to 2010, and we understood if we were going to get permits, we’d have to do this geotechnical work.”
Doing the work now can lower construction bids later, he said, because contractors have a much more clear idea of what their job would entail.
Also adding to the cost was the scrubbing of plans to build an open-web box bridge. As questions swirled about the controversial design, the CRC gave David Evans a task order for $322,500 to “support the implementing of a panel of experts to review the contractibility of the CRC.”
After two amendments for another $806,494, the panel said in early 2011 that the open-web box design was likely to fail. Planners had to re-engineer for the flat-deck truss-style bridge that’s now slated to be built.
“You learn more, you change your planning process,” Wagner said.
The decision to grant regular cost increases to the private consultants wasn’t done casually, Wagner said.
Within WSDOT, all amendments go through several departments, which analyze the requests before approval. Then the requests are run through ODOT. Finally, the FTA has an independent oversight team that sends its own reports back to Washington, D.C.
“I’ve never had oversight on a project like I had on this one,” Wagner said.
But Cortright, the economist and CRC skeptic, said that with no limits put on how much a consulting firm can spend, there’s not much keeping it from billing for more and more money.
“They’re not held to a dollar amount for the accomplishment of a task,” said Cortright, who is a paid consultant for Plaid Pantry CEO and anti-CRC activist Chris Girard. “There aren’t strong incentives for the consultants to bring it in under budget, so there’s this track record of adding more time and more money.”
Lyman said none of the cost increases were made without careful review from the departments of transportation.
“David Evans and Associates has been in business for 35 years working with dozens of public agencies in Oregon and Washington,” Lyman said. “We work on public contracts in a competitive fashion and we have a very strong reputation.”
“There’s just no basis for what Mr. Cortright is saying, except to try and stir up something that isn’t there.”
But Cortright said he isn’t convinced.
“As a consultant myself, I have to have a sneaking professional admiration that they can continue to bill millions of dollars on this,” Cortright said.
Columbian reporter Eric Florip contributed to this story.