All Politics is Local

The $140 million lie?

On the same day the governors of Washington and Oregon gathered to bless a second effort to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge, a Portland economist accused the two states’ transportation departments of lying to push the project forward.

Joe Cortright, a persistent critic of the failed Columbia River Crossing project, shows no signs of letting up as new bridge backers gear up for a second go at replacing the twin spans.

Last Monday morning, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed a loosely worded memorandum of intent in Vancouver for replacing the bridge.

Hours earlier, Cortright posted a story on City Observatory challenging the often-repeated assertion that the two states are facing a nearly $140 million federal bill from the Columbia River Crossing.

The states would not have to repay the federal money spent on preliminary engineering if the “no build” alternative was selected under the National Environmental Policy, he wrote.

Cortright provided a link to the Federal Highway Administration’s website that says requiring a state department of transportation to repay those costs could skew the entire process and cause the department to select a “build” alternative simply to avoid repaying the money.

I contacted Cortright because the multiyear federal process for the Columbia River Crossing project culminated in December 2011 with a federal record of decision to build the $3 billion-plus bridge-freeway-transit project, not the no build alternative, a standard feature in environmental impact statements.

Cortright replied that was not an irrevocable decision. Selection of the locally preferred alternative, in this case building a replacement bridge with light-rail transit, can be withdrawn or changed.

Carley Francis, southwest regional administrator for the Washington State Department of Transportation, said there is a reason why “no build” was not selected.

“The public process determined that a no build alternative was not a viable option because it would not address any of the problems identified in the purpose and need for the project,” Francis wrote in an email to The Columbian.

“All six of the problems previously identified remain current issues that have not been addressed: safety, seismic vulnerability, limited public transportation, impaired freight movement, growing travel demand and congestion, and substandard bicycle and pedestrian facilities,” she wrote. “As the new Interstate Bridge replacement efforts move forward, a new locally preferred alternative will be selected through a process with robust public engagement, which must have the support of regional stakeholders to successfully complete the federal NEPA process. While these efforts are just getting started, leaders at the local, regional and state levels have clearly expressed the belief that a replacement bridge with high-capacity transit is necessary to address current transportation issues.”

Those are all valid comments, but they don’t alter Cortright’s core point that the two states might be able to dodge a $140 million bill.

Cortright is meticulous and tenacious, qualities that will make him a formidable foe as a cohort of bridge backers try to take this Columbia River Crossing reboot to actual construction, instead of to a no build bailout.