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October 26th, 2011 12:01 am NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories

The Runaway Bridge Budget

State transportation officials stood by as planning costs for the Interstate 5 Columbia River Crossing ballooned.

news1-bridge_3751ILLUSTRATION: Daniel Zender

The freeway project Oregon and Washington want to build across the Columbia River has already cost taxpayers $136 million.

This cost comes largely from paying consultants to design, plan and push for the project, known as the Columbia River Crossing, or CRC.

The cost of the project has been reported before. But for the first time, it’s clear why those costs skyrocketed.

Documents reviewed by WW show that a single contract initially estimated at $20 million has climbed to $105 million. 

The contract grew because Oregon and Washington officials kept rewarding the contractor, Portland-based David Evans and Associates, even though the firm had burned through its money long before finishing the work.

The costs include the price of working for years on a bridge design experts later said was unbuildable. The result: We now have a project that’s 18 months behind schedule and costs more than five times the original estimate.

Records show Oregon and Washington officials sent the cost of the original David Evans contract soaring, from $50 million to $95 million, with a single change to the deal. That change was done quietly and with little public scrutiny. 

WashDOT Deputy Secretary David Dye insists both states’ transportation agencies monitored costs carefully and only approved expenditures after identifying specific, necessary tasks. “We have very rigorous internal processes,” Dye says.

He says the complexity of the planning process made sticking to the $20 million estimate impossible.

“The environmental process up front has so many variables, and there is so much that can happen,” Dye says. “It is very volatile and very difficult to estimate.” 

The hidden story of this deal, called the master contract, doesn’t bode well for the $3.5 billion freeway project.

The CRC calls for building a new Interstate 5 bridge, widening the freeway, adding a series of ramps, and extending light rail from Portland to Vancouver. 

The project is aimed at reducing the traffic congestion that now plagues I-5 near the Oregon-Washington border.

But as WW has reported, the CRC’s own documents show the project won’t solve traffic problems, and that state officials based their cost estimates on inaccurate traffic projections (“A Bridge Too False,” WW, June 1, 2011). WW has also reported that state officials continue to mislead the public about the number of jobs the project will create (“Not True, Times Ten,” WW, June 15, 2011).

Oregon and Washington officials pledge the project will be completed on time and on budget in 2022.

But if the early stages are any clue, the CRC will take far longer and cost far more than officials are telling the public.

Here’s what has driven the costs so high already:

A project of such scale requires years of planning—costs paid for equally by Oregon and Washington taxpayers. The key document that comes out of this work is the Environmental Impact Statement, the size of a couple of Manhattan telephone books, filled with traffic, environmental and financial information. 

In February 2005, planners went looking for a consultant to manage the planning.

“The WSDOT/ODOT Project Team anticipates the total cost of the environmental phase to be in excess of $20 million, with an initial agreement to be in excess of $6 million,” the original solicitation read. “The total dollar figure will vary upon project requirements and funding.”

Only one company, David Evans and Associates, responded. In May 2005, Evans signed the contract to: “Deliver the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement] and Record of Decision; develop a framework and strategy to deliver the project.” 

But something had changed behind the scenes. The $20 million-plus cost had somehow jumped to $50 million, the amount written into the David Evans contract.

It’s unclear how or why the figure grew so much. “I wasn’t here then, but as they realized what the scope was, it was more than anticipated,” says Lyn Wylder, David Evans’ current CRC project manager. “There were more alternatives examined and more work to be done.”

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