Columbia River Crossing: Overconfidence sunk the shipping route

Columbia River Crossing: Overconfidence sunk the shipping route
In this Aug. 4, 2011, file photo, made in Portland, Ore., the Interstate 5 bridge spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. Project planners are shutting down the offices that spent up to $170 million planning to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River. (AP Photo/Don Ryan, File)

As of this morning, the Portland Business Journal has either written or collected exactly 200 stories that mention the Columbia River Crossing since 2006.

The first one, by Shelly Strom, mentioned a study that found the more than 10,000 trucks using the I-5 corridor daily carried cargo valued at $26 billion annually. Those trucks, in the year 2000, were delayed by 13,390 hours because of traffic over the full year, causing losses of $14 million.

By the end of 2007, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski was leading a growing wave of voices calling for a new bridge. It was around that point that a formal subset of the Oregon and Washington transportation departments set up shop in Vancouver and went about working on what was to be a $4.2 billion project. In June 2008, businesses released a study contending that the economic losses if a new bridge wasn't built would be massive ($844 million by 2025).

All seemed to be rolling along, as it were. But a few critical voices had yet to chime in.

In wondering how our neighbors to the north felt about chipping $1 billion or so for a new CRC, I interviewed two elected officials with ties to Washington’s transportation dollars. Both Washington State Rep. Judy Clibborn, a Democrat, and Republican State Sen. Don Benton, of Vancouver, told me they thought getting money from their legislature would be difficult.

At the end of the year, I touched base with Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who served on the House Transportation Committee. DeFazio confirmed what many had whispered for years: Congress had little appetite to fund highway-related projects.

DeFazio, himself, needed to be convinced why the bridge cost so much. France’s Bridge of Millau, billed as the “world’s tallest bridge,” only cost around $800 million (U.S. dollars), he pointed out.

“That’s the most spectacular structure in modern times,” he said at the time. “It goes over a gorge and has pylons that are up to 1,200 feet high. I can’t figure out why, when that cost $800 million, it would cost $4 billion to put something over the Columbia.”

Nonetheless, several governments signed off on the project, meaning, they basically supported efforts to raise funds from federal, state and local (read: tolling) sources.

In 2009, the project became as wavy and rolling as the Columbia River itself. Doubts were cast about the structure’s design, the funding (again) and, more than ever, the project’s environmental impact and the need for a 12-lane bridge in an era when fewer residents were driving automobiles.

Economist Joe Cortright emerged as a bridge proposal critic. And a few more business leaders, primarily, the Plaid Pantry’s Chris Girard, stepped forward to question the entire process.

The discussion had become a debate, fueled in many ways by overconfidence among the transportation department teams assembling the project. The government project leaders always seemed distant and aloof, as if they figured that because we’d headed down a path by spending what ended up as $170 million, on environmental studies and what-not, the bridge would be built.

And even though the project was eventually scaled back to six lanes and the cost targets were lowered to $3 billion, the Columbia River Crossing team took a huge hit when it became known that the new crossing would be too low to accommodate barges serving nearby businesses.

That’s why it was interesting when businesses came out, in force, in support of the project at last year’s Oregon Business Summit. With Oregon lawmakers supporting them, many predicted the measure would easily make it through the Oregon chambers.

And it did.

It just didn’t, as we know now, make it over to the other side.