ODOT Needs to Stop the I-5 Bridge Con

ClimateLeadersDontWiden 92421 Maus

Louisville’s I-65 bridges at rush hour: $1 tolls eliminated tens of thousands of daily trips

If Metro were to demand that road pricing be implemented before squandering billions on this project, it would likely find that the region had more than adequate transportation capacity across the Columbia River. A region that says it is going to implement road pricing doesn’t commit to a multi-billion dollar freeway project based on outdated projections, and subsidize expensive freeway capacity that won’t be needed in a world with pricing. Going deeply into debt for a megaproject and failing to consider how paying for it will reduce traffic is the opposite of planning.

No Financial Viability

At $5 billion or more, this will be the most expensive transportation project in this region for the next couple of decades. In theory, the project should be part of the region’s “financially constrained” regional transportation plan, but the budget documents prepared by the state DOT staffs show that they don’t know the actual cost of the project, and that there is a massive, $3.4-billion hole in the project’s budget. Moving ahead with no clear idea how the project would be paid for is opposite of planning.

The original CRC effort foundered a decade ago because there was no stomach for its excessive costs in either Oregon or Washington. Congressman Peter DeFazio famously declared the project to be a gold-plated monstrosity. In the Oregonian on August 14, 2011, Representative DeFazio said:

“I kept on telling the project to keep the costs down, don’t build a gold-plated [emphasis added] project,” a clearly frustrated DeFazio said. “How can you have a $4 billion project? They let the engineers loose, told them to solve all the region’s infrastructure problems in one fell swoop… They need to get it all straight and come up with a viable project, a viable financing plan that can withstand a vigorous review.”

Later on August 18, Representative DeFazio told Oregon Public Broadcasting:

“I said, how can it cost three or four billion bucks to go across the Columbia River? . . . The Columbia River Crossing problem was thrown out to engineers, it wasn’t overseen: they said solve all the problems in this twelve-mile corridor and they did it in a big engineering way, and not in an appropriate way.”

Ten years ago, the two state DOTs squandered nearly $200 million on planning without first securing the needed funds for the project, and they are repeating this exact failed strategy today. Now, in their efforts to revive the project, after two years of work, the project has not developed a definitive financial plan, and its estimates of Oregon’s needed contribution have inexplicably jumped by more than $150 million in a month. ODOT and WSDOT are spending millions—$200 million is planned for staff and consultants before this project breaks ground—with no clear idea of how this will be paid for.

The prospect for Build Back Better and a national infrastructure funding package is no reason to move ahead with a misguided, environmentally destructive bridge project. Oregon and Washington will get their share of these monies whether they build this project, or whether they choose to use these funds more wisely. A regional government that cared about the future would ask “what is the smartest possible use of $5 billion” rather than approving this project.

Cannibalizing Maintenance to Pay for Megaprojects

This particular project is a particularly egregious example of how state DOTs beg for money by complaining that they don’t have enough to fix potholes, but then use any additional revenue they can find to build massive new projects that simply increase the maintenance burden. This project is no exception, ODOT is literally asking Metro to approve the reallocation of funds that would otherwise be used for maintenance to pay for planning the megaproject.

ODOT is reducing money for road maintenance and repair to hire consultants for this megaproject. ODOT makes this clear in one of their own memos from the I-5 bridge project:

This project change requires adjustment to the fiscally constrained RTP. Funds from the fiscally constrained Fix-It buckets in the RTP will be reduced to allow for the $36M ODOT funds to be advanced on this project. [emphasis added] Memo with details was sent to Metro 9/17/21 by Chris Ford. We find the analysis is still applicable with the addition of WDOT funds since RTP focuses on Oregon revenue only.

(Source: Chris Ford, Memo to Metro TPAC, “I-5:Columbia River (Interstate) Bridge: Requested Amendment to the 2021-24 Metropolitan Transportation Improvement Program.” Oregon Department of Transportation. September 24, 2021, page 6.)

Diverting money from maintenance funds to pay for a megaproject is the opposite of planning.

This is a pivotal moment for Metro. As former Metro President David Bragdon (who guided the agency through the original Columbia River Crossing) wrote in retrospect:

Leadership at ODOT frequently told me things that were not true, bluffed about things they did not know, made all sorts of misleading claims, and routinely broke promises. They continually substituted PR and lobbying gambits in place of sound engineering, planning and financial acumen, treating absolutely everything as merely a challenge of spin rather than matters of dollars or physical reality.

That history is important, because if you’re not honest about the patterns of the past, you are doomed to repeat them. Unfortunately, I understand that’s exactly what’s going on with the rebranded CRC: the same agencies, and even some of the same personalities who failed so spectacularly less than a decade ago – wasting nearly $200 million and building absolutely nothing – have inexplicably been rewarded for their failure by being given license to try the very same task, using the very same techniques of bamboozlement.

Metro has a choice: It can repeat the mistakes of the past and bow to the wishes of an entrenched highway building bureaucracy, or it can do its job, and live up to its professed values. It can plan. It can insist on accurate travel projections, it can demand a definitive finance plan, it can require that freeway construction be addressed comprehensively, rather than piecemeal, it can require that the vision for capacity be integrated with congestion pricing, and it can require a full financial plan before squandering more on planning this speculative project. And above all, it can insist that the region’s next multi-billion dollar transportation project reduce greenhouse gases, rather than increase them. Anything less would be the opposite of planning.

You May Also Like