Washington State stalls (killed) Oregon’s Rail Folly: Travelers, Taxpayers & Social Equity are Winners

COST Commentary: This was originally posted July 7, 2013 and was partially updated on March 9, 2014.

The last two short stories are partial updates to the previous stories and cover of the final close-down of the Columbia River project. They are summarized by the title of the first one: “Columbia River Crossing: ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) to pull plug, bridge project is dead” The tragic line in the story is: “The shutdown comes after more than a decade of planning and nearly $190 million worth of planning, engineering, financial and traffic forecasting and other work.” This massive waste of taxpayer funds could have been avoided with just a little common sense and leadership. The good news is that the waste of additional billions of dollars was avoided.

There is a major, very relevant lesson for Austin in this story: Austin wasted about the same amount of money in building the Red Line commuter rail not counting the loss of more than $12 million a year to operate the train. This has proven to be a very large waste of taxpayer funds. So far, Austin leadership has not indicated they understand this tragedy. The Mayor is pushing hard for an urban rail election in November 2014 which would result in the wasteful spending of billions of dollars on ineffective rail.

The following COST commentary was in the June posting.

There were, at least, two major victories for transportation, taxpayers and all citizens during the last week of June, 2013.

The articles and papers below address the second event which halted the continued wasteful spending of taxpayer funds for a joint Washington and Oregon state project to construct a new bridge across the Columbia River boundary between the states; including the expansion of Portland’s extensive light rail system to cross the river into Vancouver, Washington.

The two states have reportedly spent $170 million dollars on planning this misguided venture. It began in the mid 2000s as part of the response to address the problem of an old bridge which had become a congestion bottleneck; jeopardizing the major population growth and economic efficiency on both sides of the Columbia. This led to the involvement of transit officials and the ultimate, ill-advised decision to accommodate a light rail on the new bridge. Making light rail transit a higher priority than solving the bridge congestion problem resulted in many blunders including a major increase in project cost.

Portland has a long history of implementing high costs, ineffective, and unsustainable light rail, prompting Oregon to approve their “down payment” portion of the project, $450 million. Fortunately, Washington had some objective citizens and elected officials who were committed and worked hard to uncover the facts before the legislature committed its $450 million share. This “down payment” was based on a $3.4 billion finance plan (current dollars, not including interest). It was clear, when the truth was unveiled, that the costs would be much higher as experienced in almost every rail transit system. Based on the information revealed and more thorough analyses, Washington Legislatures did not approve the funding, in spite of the Washington Governor’s strong support of the project.

What are the lessons learned for Austin? Austin has lost focus on the priority of congestion relief, much as Oregon and Washington did. As in this Washington-Oregon project, Austin’s solution of an Urban Rail system is ineffective, will have no impact on congestion and its exorbitant costs will be a major burden for taxpayers while siphoning limited transportation funds from roadway projects which would reduce congestion and improve public transit with greater coverage and efficiency with lower costs. Wasteful spending on ineffective rail will also reduce the effectiveness of public transit by reducing funds available for the bus system which is the primary source of transit for those who need it and have no alternative; resulting in degradation of social equity.

The first memo below is from the head of the company which played a major role in uncovering the facts and truth of the Columbia River Crossing (CRS). This truth was filled with unsubstantiated, wasteful payments, costly blunders and no valid evidence or support the project would achieve its projections and promises. The second and third items below are media articles revealing key facts in his situation and they also clearly reflect the biases present in those whose self-interest and ideology is a priority over the facts and the best interests of all citizens. Ms Couch’s memo reflects the frequent truth in these projects: massive wasteful spending of taxpayer funds driven by nonobjective, self-serving citizens and political leaders.

Some suggested the project should not be stopped because so much money had been spent: As Ms Couch notes, this reflects a miserable situation which was allowed to escalate for years without objective checks and balances. Continuing would be a sad conclusion and much worse than the difficult decision made by courageous folks: to stop now. Unfortunately, similar cost escalations are occurring in Austin as Urban Rail planning continues to build momentum without objective checks and balances.

The second “victory” in late June also concerns the work by a few courageous, dedicated citizens to uncover the facts and reveal the truth about rail transit. This work of Georgetown, Texas citizens resulted in their city council rejecting, by a vote of 6-1, their continued financial support of the plan for an ill-advised commuter rail from Georgetown to San Antonio in central Texas. See: Rail Jumps The Track AGAIN!: Georgetown City Council Votes To End Participation In Lone Star Rail District

There are also three, recent, additional negative articles regarding rail transit projects at the following COST site: Rail Disasters Mounting: Tales of Three Cities
From: Tiffany Couch
Sent: Sun, Jun 30, 2013 12:14 am
Subject: My heartfelt gratitude to you

To my very dear friends and colleagues:

The governors of Oregon and Washington have indicated tonight that they will start moving to shut down the Columbia River Crossing office in Vancouver. This project is officially dead since Washington State Legislators chose to decline any future dollars towards this project. (the news article referenced here can also be seen below)

By far, this is the largest case we’ve worked. Tens of thousands of documents, hundreds (maybe thousands?) of hours; all with: an inordinate amount of public and professional scrutiny. Most times, that work was met with silence. Most of those with the decision making power chose to ignore rather than to act.

Most would think this would be a big “W” in our Win column. For the record, I see it differently. To me, the win is not whether we were right or wrong. The only win in all of this is the fact that we were able to be a conduit for the truth. We were able to scrutinize and then communicate complex financial information into a format for others to understand. From the public to the public officials that made the decisions; our work certainly shed light on many troubling issues.

In my personal opinion, I don’t see this as a win for Clark County or as an example of how government should work. I see this as a huge disappointment. A consequence of what happens when government doesn’t work as intended. Over $170 million was spent on a bridge project wrought with cost overruns, planning errors, and major design flaws. As a result, a project that could have helped this region; most importantly the people of Clark County, was never truly considered. As a result of this failure, many people will lose their jobs in the coming weeks as the CRC office is shut down. We will have to find a new course to hopefully find a bridge project (or 3!) that will help solve the transportation problems facing our community…problems that the CRC Project admitted it would not fix: congestion and freight mobility.

I do not believe for a moment that this bridge project was killed solely because of our work. I do, however, believe that our work led to legislators asking questions and seeking to understand the discrepancies we discovered. Those questions led to answers which confirmed many of the opinions set forth in our reports. Couple our findings with design and other errors by the CRC project office, legislators found themselves with no choice but the one they made.

Speaking of legislators – two stand out to me as the types of representatives we wish to have in our government. Senator Ann Rivers from the 18th Legislative District here in Clark/Cowltiz County and Senator Curtis King from Yakima, took the lead on this. They reviewed reports, attending meetings with me and CRC and Coast Guard officials. They asked questions and demanded answers. They took a lot of heat from the Governor, their own colleagues, and others who tried to convince them that this project was a “done deal” and that they should just get on board. They didn’t. They sought to find answers to the questions. When those answers revealed problems, they articulately communicated them to their colleagues. I cannot think of any other legislator I’ve had the pleasure of working with who I’ve seen work so hard on an issue. Not to “win” – but to find answers to get to the truth and then make informed decisions. Other legislators that have worked hard on this should not be discounted: Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler; Representative Liz Pike; Representative Ed Orcutt to name a few.

There are numerous other experts who have provided contrary opinions: Economist Joe Cortright; John Charles, a Transportation Expert from the Cascade Policy Institute; and Kevin Peterson, a world renowned Transportation Design Architect. They, too, have suffered the same types of personal and professional attacks as I have. Yet their work stands on its own. More beacons of the truth.

And, then there are those who sacrificed personal time and talent all for this project. The volunteers and “grass roots” efforts that were there from beginning to end.

If you are receiving this message tonight it is with my heartfelt gratitude and thanks. You are the ones who read reports and offered excellent professional advice. You were the ones who prayed or sent good thoughts our way as reports were published. Others of you stood by and continued to be a friend or a business partner or a colleague even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do. Perhaps you did something as simple as sit next to me at Rotary or offered kind words of encouragement. You’ve no idea how much those simple acts were appreciated by me. I will never forget them.

Many in our community believe that, with the CRC “over,” so is Acuity Group! Sorry to disappoint! Acuity Group was strong before the CRC came through the door. Most of the time we had to fit in the CRC work as we had time; as we were generally handling anywhere from 12 to 18 cases at any given point over the last two years! Right now, we’re juggling cases from our region and beyond – with a big trip to Louisiana on the horizon and a great speaking gig in Indiana coming up in August. We are blessed beyond measure with great clients and interesting and fulfilling work.

Most importantly, I look forward to working in our community as it’s a wonderful place to live and work and raise a family!

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for your support and your wisdom.

With much love,

Tiffany R. Couch, CPA/CFF, CFE
Financial Investigation and Forensic Accounting

Washington lawmakers’ denial of funding ends project; governors pull plug
By Eric Florip, Columbian Staff Reporter Originally published June 29, 2013

The Columbia River Crossing is dead.

After intense political wrangling, tens of millions of taxpayer dollars spent, and a controversy that embroiled Clark County for the better part of a decade, the Washington Senate delivered the fatal blow to the beleaguered project Saturday. Lawmakers there turned back a last-ditch effort to push through a transportation revenue package that would have steered crucial funding to the CRC and other projects across the state. The full Legislature’s adjournment without approving that money left the planned Interstate 5 Bridge replacement with an aggressive schedule and a $3.4 billion finance plan ready to fall apart.

Instead, both states’ governors said Saturday that they’d pull the plug. The project’s downtown Vancouver office will begin shutting down. Its dozens of employees and consultants will land elsewhere. Funding that Oregon lawmakers had already committed will evaporate. And Clark County will move on to life after the CRC.

Gov. Jay Inslee will meet with Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and transportation officials to decide next steps, said Inslee spokesman David Postman. But the assumption all along was that the project would fold if Washington lawmakers made no commitment this year, he said.

“We’re now looking at what that means and exactly how that’s going to proceed,” Postman said.
Kitzhaber confirmed the CRC’s demise in a statement expressing disappointment Saturday. The failure of Washington lawmakers doesn’t eliminate the safety and economic risks on the existing Interstate 5 Bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland, he said.

“But without the funds from Washington and adherence to the project budget and schedule, neither state can incur the further costs of delay,” Kitzhaber said. “Consequently, project managers have begun to close down the project.”

The development is a major political defeat for Inslee, Kitzhaber and other high-profile forces that had lobbied hard for the CRC in recent months. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., was among those leading the charge. Then-U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited Olympia in the session to put additional pressure on lawmakers to act.

CRC planners had banked on Washington and Oregon to jointly contribute $900 million to the project’s $3.4 billion cost. Oregon lawmakers approved their state’s $450 million share this year. House Democrats in Olympia passed a $10 billion transportation revenue package and project list that would have committed another $450 million from Washington.

But Senate Republicans had long indicated they weren’t keen on the package, which included a 10½ cent increase to the state gas tax. Plenty of members singled out the many financial and logistical questions surrounding the CRC, which would have extended light rail into Vancouver and rebuilt freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River.

Ultimately, the Senate didn’t act on either the transportation package or CRC funding before the final gavel dropped. After adjournment, a clearly frustrated Inslee laid blame squarely at the feet of the Senate’s Majority Coalition Caucus, made up of mostly Republicans. He called the result a “total failure.”
“Where have you been for the past six months? Has anyone here heard leadership from the Senate majority caucus?” Inslee said on live television. “I think not, and that’s very regrettable.”

He later added: “This was supposed to be a bipartisan majority. But it has turned into nothing but a roadblock to a transportation package.”

Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, expressed disappointment that senators received the House’s transportation package on what ended up being the 151st day of a 153-day legislative session. And Rivers noted that the House failed to pass a required bonding authority bill as part of the package.
It’s not clear the House even had the votes to pass the bonding authority bill, which would require a three-fifths majority. Earlier components of the transportation package scraped by on slim majorities, and only after an unsuccessful first attempt.

Rivers said Senate leaders plan to meet with constituents in the coming months to decide the best way to proceed with the state’s transportation needs, including the I-5 corridor. “Bring folks in on the front end instead of the back end,” she said.

As for the death of the CRC, “I take neither joy nor pleasure,” said Rivers, who opposed the CRC as planned. “It’s heartbreaking that it got as far as it did with such questionable results.”

High-profile blunders

The CRC had become a lightning rod of controversy in Clark County, particularly the light-rail component local leaders approved in 2008. Opponents also decried the CRC’s cost and plans to toll the new I-5 bridge, saying it put an undue financial burden on the Southwest Washington residents who account for the majority of traffic over the bridge.

Supporters called the CRC an essential fix for an aging bridge that’s an economic and safety liability. The twin spans of the I-5 bridge were built in 1917 and 1958. Both are considered “functionally obsolete” by state transportation officials.

The CRC had friends in high places, but it was a series of high-profile blunders that ultimately helped facilitate the project’s undoing. The CRC went through multiple bridge designs, multiple delays and multiple project directors over the years.

All of that led to perhaps the project’s most embarrassing misstep: designing a bridge too low. Planners initially drew up a fixed span with just 95 feet of clearance over the Columbia — a height roundly dismissed by the U.S. Coast Guard and others as inadequate for the navigation and economic needs of river users.

Planners scrambled to come up with a 116-foot-high design late last year and applied to the Coast Guard in January for a bridge permit — even as mitigation talks continued with upriver businesses that would have taken a financial hit due to the bridge design. Negotiations centered around how much the CRC would pay them as compensation.

“In the private sector, if this had happened, there would be no forgiveness of the companies that did this,” Rivers said of the CRC’s blunders.

Local players react

Local reaction to news of the CRC’s death varied. Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a strong supporter of the project, called the outcome “politics at its worst.”

“It’s hard to find diplomatic words to describe the disappointment at what is really the failure of leadership in the legislature — by some of our representatives — to invest in the future economy and safety of the roads and bridges in our state,” Leavitt said. “Of course, it’s not just the CRC project that comes to a halt, but all the other important projects around the state that other communities were hoping would be completed, addressing the challenges they face in their local economies.”
Leavitt continued: “Sadly, that’s politics. This is unfortunately a poster child of poor politics.”
Clark County Commissioner David Madore became a key voice galvanizing opposition to the CRC in the later stages of the debate. Reached late Saturday, Madore welcomed the news — and reiterated his call for a third bridge over the Columbia River at 192nd Avenue.

“Many people worked very hard to defend this community from being exploited, and we owe them a debt of gratitude,” he said. “Our state legislature, our senators and many local citizens that worked so hard and conducted themselves with honor are very thankful to see the outcome.”

If there’s one thing to learn from the CRC, Madore said, “it’s how not to build a bridge and force a project upon the community.”

It’s unclear what will become of the ongoing efforts surrounding the CRC. The Coast Guard is still reviewing the project’s bridge permit application, and CRC leaders had been engaged in mitigation talks with upriver business as recently as last week. C-Tran, a local partner in the project, has spent recent months discussing how to pay the local cost of operating light rail in Vancouver.
In all, the project spent more than $170 million in planning.

The Columbia River Crossing project office officially formed in 2005. Its leaders had hoped to begin construction in 2014.

Instead, it appears the project will disband in 2013 without turning a shovel.

Kitzhaber: Washington killed CRC project
Created on Saturday, 29 June 2013 11:00 |
by Jim Redden, Portland Tribune (http://portlandtribune.com/pt/9-news/155712-kitzhaber-washington-killed-crc-project )

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber declared the Columbia River Crossing project dead Saturday evening following the 2013 Washington Legislature’s refusal to vote on a transportation funding package.
Although the 2013 Oregon Legislature committed $450 million to the project, Washington needed to commit a similar amount to secure the federal government’s share of the $3.4 billion cost to replace the Interstate 5 bridge between Oregon and Washington and make related freeway improvements.

Kitzhaber’s statement reads as follows:

“I am extremely disappointed that our legislative partners in the Washington State Senate failed to address the clear and present safety and economic need for this essential I-5 bridge. I have worked with three committed Washington governors on this project — starting with Governor Locke, then Governor Gregoire and now Governor Inslee — which makes the demise of the Columbia River Crossing without an up or down vote in the Senate even more disheartening. I want to thank Governor Inslee for his strong support and extraordinary effort to deliver Washington’s share of funding for the I-5 replacement bridge. The failure of the Senate to act does not eliminate the safety and economic risks to both our states, but without the funds from Washington and adherence to the project budget and schedule, neither state can incur the further costs of delay. Consequently, project managers have begun to close down the project.

“Governor Inslee and I will continue to work together, but our options will be different without Washington state’s financial partnership. Without bi-state funding, I have asked ODOT to review all of the work on the Oregon side of the project to determine if any stand-alone investments could be made to improve safety and reduce congestion on a smaller scale. That work will be subject for further
legislative review.”
Columbia River Crossing: ODOT to pull plug, bridge project is dead

By Jeff Manning | jmanning@oregonian.com

March 07, 2014 at 5:55 PM

The Oregon Legislature, through its inaction, has apparently put the final stake in the heart of the Columbia River Crossing.

The Oregon Department of Transportation announced Friday it is closing the project’s offices, issuing cease-work orders to its many contractors and shutting the project down entirely by May 31.

The Oregon Legislature adjourned Friday having taken no action on the CRC other than a committee hearing. Oregon lawmakers lost their appetite for the project after the state of Washington pulled out as a co-funder last summer.

The shutdown comes after more than a decade of planning and nearly $190 million worth of planning, engineering, financial and traffic forecasting and other work.

It is an enormous victory for both environmental and urban planning groups from the left and conservative fiscal hawks from the right. This Green Tea Party, as they came to call themselves, attacked the project as a wasteful, bloated plan that was both bad for the environment and too risky for one state to bear alone.

It’s a stunning loss for Gov. John Kitzhaber, who continued to fight for the project until nearly the bitter end, and the mainline business and labor organizations that fought with him.

In the end, the boosters failed to convince the skeptics that the project would adequately address the I-5 crossing’s chronic congestion or that they could pull off the project without disastrous cost overruns or other problems.

“ODOT, WSDOT and TriMet will begin demobilizing agency staff,” ODOT said in an announcement issued late Friday. “We will issue stop work orders on consultant contracts on or before March 15, 2014. We will release consultant staff once they have archived and catalogued their work products.”

Subject: ODOT announces plans to close down Columbia River Crossing Project
Date: Fri, 07 Mar 2014 19:03:54 -0600
From: “Oregon Department of Transportation”

ODOT announces plans to close down Columbia River Crossing Project

CRC will shut down completely by May 31, 2014

The following is a statement issued this afternoon by ODOT Director Matthew Garrett:

“On March 7, the Oregon Legislature adjourned without reinstating construction funds for the CRC I-5 Bridge Replacement project. As identified in Governor Kitzhaber’s January 27, 2014 letter to legislative leadership, the project will begin the process of orderly archival and closeout. We have the fiduciary responsibility to close out the project in a systematic, retrievable manner in order to adequately preserve a decade of research, environmental reviews, community involvement, and detailed engineering work for potential future use. We will archive work products according to Oregon record retention requirements.

Expenditures will be reduced immediately; further design and deliverable development will not occur. The project will shut down completely by May 31, 2014.

Conclude Staff and Agency Agreements

ODOT, WSDOT and TriMet will begin demobilizing agency staff. Each agency will be responsible for necessary personnel actions.

We will issue stop work orders on consultant contracts on or before March 15, 2014, including instructions to record the current status of the work product and contract amendments to archive work products and conduct contract closeout. We will release consultant staff once they have archived and catalogued their work products.

In addition, the project has intergovernmental agreements in place with agencies such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Multnomah County Drainage District. We will close out these agreements this month with formal stop work orders.

Archive and Catalogue Work Products

We will archive and catalogue all work products, past deliverables, and permit documentation in their current state. The following types of work products exist:

-Environmental documentation required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), including the Draft and Final Environmental Impact Statement(s), the federal Record of Decision and required re-evaluations.

-Financial analysis, including extensive documentation required by the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program, a transit operations and maintenance agreement, the investment grade analysis, and work products related to application for a federal TIFIA loan.

-Recent cost estimates for elements of the Oregon-led project and the project’s history of risk-based cost estimating.

-Geotechnical research and reports that have been informed by the drilled shaft and driven test pile program.

-The bodies of work that led to receipt of the U.S. Coast Guard General Bridge Permit and Section 401 water quality certification in Oregon and Washington. Work efforts required as part of the Section 404 flood and wetland and 408 navigation and levee impact permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were underway and will be archived. Other permitting plans and work products will be catalogued.

-Draft design build procurement document for the River Crossing Bridges and Approaches

-Documentation and summary of the robust public involvement program, including comments, advisory group activities, outreach presentations and public information materials.

-Work efforts to support right of way plans and utility relocations. Development drafts of procurement documents, including those intended to guide construction of the Columbia River bridges.

Vacate Office

The project occupies one floor of the Vancouver Center building. The lease is on a month-to-month basis, so there is no penalty for early termination. ODOT facilities will coordinate the retention of computers, phones, and furniture; ODOT fleet services will coordinate vehicle disposition.”

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