Where did $175M for bridge go?

Richard Read / The Oregonian

PORTLAND — Columbia River Crossing managers spent more than $175 million in public funds planning a bridge, highway and light-rail complex that won’t be built. That’s about what it would cost for seismic upgrades to the existing Interstate 5 Bridge across the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver.

Where did all the money go? Was it a complete waste? Some answers lie in documents released to The Oregonian this week by CRC managers, who will close shop following the collapse of the plan last weekend in the Washington Legislature.

The accounting shows that most of the money went to consultants, many of them local, who performed engineering, excavation, architectural, archaeological and other work.The biggest chunk went to David Evans and Associates Inc., the prime consultant, a Portland-based design and management firm that billed more than $37 million.

“We are a firm of engineers, scientists and planners, and we are in the business of helping public bodies make decisions,” said Jay Lyman, a David Evans senior vice president at CRC offices in Vancouver. “I wish we could say logic drives those decisions. Everybody in this building, and I personally, are very disappointed.”

Second biggest was Parsons Brinckerhoff, at $22 million, a multinational transportation engineering firm that designed a more popular span, the Fremont Bridge, in 1973. New York-based Parsons and CH2M Hill Inc., at $2.3 million, helped with engineering.

Another big player was Enviroissues Inc., which handled communications, the CRC website, social media, advisory groups and community presentations. Its bill was $7.7 million.

It’s difficult to see how such outreach could have any utility beyond the CRC. Geologic studies could possibly be useful for a future project.

“We have a very good understanding of the subsurface conditions of the Columbia River on that alignment that may end up being useful in the future,” Lyman said. “Or if another alignment is picked, it may not be.”

The Columbia River Crossing was an ambitious project that burned money at prodigious rates. Bitter political squabbling about the project’s merit in 2009 and 2010 put the CRC months behind schedule, upping costs by $100 million.

Two subsequent reviews by outside panels, costing more than $2 million, persuaded officials to scrap an open-web bridge design for a more traditional model.

In 2012, the CRC suffered its biggest embarrassment, concluding under pressure from the Coast Guard and others that the bridge’s 95-foot vertical clearance was too low. Officials scrambled to come up with a new height, settling on 116 feet. They negotiated mitigation agreements at undisclosed costs with upriver manufacturers, whose products still wouldn’t fit under the higher span.

The project limped forward, assailed by Clark County residents for light rail and by Portland critics for faulty toll projections. Backers lobbied rural Oregon legislators whose support proved critical for passage in March of Oregon’s $450 million contribution.

A similar coalition never materialized in Washington, where Republican senators declined to consider a $10 billion transportation package that included the CRC.

Since the project began in 2004, state and federal governments have allocated more than $227 million. Washington halted spending of its share well short of that total. Oregon allocated $12 million for planning, plus $83 million received from the Federal Highway Administration.

Of the $175 million spent through April 30, $114 million went to David Evans and Associates and its subcontractors. The CRC paid another $19 million directly to additional consultants. Most of the remainder went to pay staff members seconded from the Oregon and Washington transportation departments and other public entities such as Metro, Tri-Met, C-Tran and the cities of Portland and Vancouver.

Among David Evans and Associates’ 84 subconsultants on the project is McCaig Communications & Opinion Research Inc. — paid $418,121 through April 30. Patricia McCaig was Gov. John Kitzhaber’s top adviser on the CRC. Two ethics complaints have been filed against McCaig, who did not register as a lobbyist with the state of Oregon.

Shannon & Wilson Inc., a geotechnical and environmental consulting firm, received $4.8 million in CRC work. The company drilled large-diameter shafts more than 250-feet deep, testing them at full loads to make recommendations for the bridge foundation.

Gary Peterson, a senior vice president in Lake Oswego, said the Columbia channel is deep, filled with loose sand. A big subduction-zone earthquake will produce extensive liquefaction, he said.”We generated a lot of data that shouldn’t be discarded,” Peterson said. “It’s debilitating to see all the years and dollars of hard effort ready to go to bid, and then it just gets thrown out. That’s just amazing.”