Business Columns & Blogs

Bridge project’s $170M demise gives us a chance at a fresh start

If a string of numbers and letters can be said to have anthropomorphic qualities like personality, then this particular aggregation sits on the page sullenly and defiantly glowering at the reader.

One hundred seventy million dollars. $170 million.

That is the widely quoted sum of the money spent to date on the Columbia River Crossing, the proposed bridge to replace the existing spans carrying Interstate 5 between Vancouver on the Washington side and Portland on the Oregon side. (Note: That figure has also been reported as $175 million, giving it an even more surly countenance.)

That’s a bridge on which not a bulldozer blade’s worth of dirt has been pushed, not a dollop of concrete has been poured — and now never will be, at least in its present configuration.

Because the Legislature adjourned without approving a transportation “package” — i.e., a list of highway projects and the revenue sources, including taxes, to pay for them — the CRC is apparently done. Without Washington’s commitment, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber pulled the plug on the project, which is shutting down its offices and a website.

The demise of the transportation package — the House passed a proposal, but the Senate declined to vote on it — was blamed on multiple factors, including the split political control of the Legislature (Dems in the House, a coalition of Republicans and a handful of defecting Democrats in the Senate) and the always-touchy subject of taxes. The House’s version called for a 10.5-cent increase in the state gasoline tax.

Kitzhaber’s Washington counterpart, Jay Inslee, was quick to jump on the political aspect of the defeat of the transportation package. But if the guvs and the plan’s backers (which included sizable chunks of business, labor and media) want to find the real culprit, they’d do well to focus on the long, unhappy and expensive history of the Columbia River Crossing.

That project hasn’t attracted a lot of attention in the Puget Sound region. For one, it’s down there, and aside from the occasional trip to Portland, the existing bridges (one built in 1917, the other in 1958) don’t figure into most people’s lives. For another, this region has its own megaprojects capable of generating sufficient controversy to occupy everyone’s focus — the tunnel replacement for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, the 520 floating bridge over Lake Washington.

And it’s true that when it comes to big highway projects, $170 million doesn’t buy a lot these days. The CRC was estimated at $3.4 billion. The Seattle tunnel project alone is a $2 billion job. A 2012 fact sheet from the state Department of Transportation estimates that construction of the extension of state Route 167 from Edgewood to the Port of Tacoma (part of the broader Puget Sound Gateway proposal) will run to $1.2 billion.

But to many taxpayers, $170 million still looks like real money. And the more they look at that number, the grumpier they’re going to get.

It wasn’t just the money consumed by the offices or the website. It wasn’t just the years spent designing a bridge that a panel of experts later advised be scrapped. It wasn’t just the 95-foot clearance that the Coast Guard, which has a regulatory say on bridges that could impede navigation on the river, said was a no-go (the existing spans have lifts providing about 175 feet of clearance). It wasn’t just that the revised 116-foot clearance would still have blocked downriver access for three manufacturers on the Washington side of the river, necessitating mitigation payments to those companies. And it wasn’t just the suspicion in Vancouver, which has repeatedly said it doesn’t want light rail, that the CRC was a light-rail bridge with some highway lanes thrown in to give it political cover, a suspicion fueled by the continuing insistence, coming from both Olympia and Portland/Salem, that the bridge had to include light rail or else no project.

It was all of those and a lot more that galvanized opposition not just in Southwest Washington but eventually in the place that matters most — Olympia.

That squandered $170 million is going to have consequences well beyond the money lost.

For starters, it delays a transportation package that, shorn of CRC, would have generated far less controversy and might well have passed easily. That’s of no small import to Tacoma and Pierce County, which really wants that 167 extension but won’t get it as long as it’s linked to anything that looks like the CRC.

The transportation-package backers’ overreach on CRC will make getting legislative and popular approval tougher next time. The statewide electorate might not follow the details and day-to-day transactions of transportation planning, highway-project spending and legislative intrigue. But they know a lot more about CRC now that it’s done than they did when it was still in the works, and the more they know and the longer they stew about that $170 million, the more skeptical they’ll be about approving more spending for any project, no matter how needed.

The sad saga of the CRC also detracts from success stories the state can legitimately take pride in, most notably the quick temporary fix of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River. For all recriminations over how the collapse could have happened (and there’s still plenty of time for that), the state moved with remarkable speed and efficiency in reopening the highway.

Though they’d be loath to admit it, the apparent death of the CRC has actually done Inslee and Kitzhaber, not to mention those who want other projects built, a huge favor. With the table swept clear of the CRC, both states are now free to start over, with a clean sheet of paper, to design a bridge that accomplishes a few specific goals, such as congestion relief and improved safety.

The pressure is on them to make the most of the opportunity. Because that’s a $170 million clean sheet of paper they’re working with.