Author Archive | Joe Cortright

Spin Cycle: CRC Seismic Upgrades

Well, at least the half-life of lies being told to support the Columbia River Crossing is getting shorter.

In its morning printed edition of February 10, the Oregonian reported that state bridge engineer Bruce Johnson claimed that “no one had estimated the cost of seismically retrofitting” the I-5 bridges, and speculated that such a retrofit would cost more than half a billion dollars.

By that evening, however, the reporter who wrote the article, posted a blog entry acknowledging that such an estimate (1) had been prepared in 2006, (2) was produced by an expert panel including the quoted engineer Johnson, and (3) the cost was a fraction of the amount mentioned in the morning article.

The Oregonian February 10, 2014 (6am)
Richard Read
Obsolete Interstate Bridge must keep standing if Columbia River Crossing fizzles

Johnson [Bruce Johnson, Oregon’s state bridge engineer] said no one has estimated the cost of seismically retrofitting the Columbia River bridges, but he believes a project would be extremely expensive.

A new substructure would have to be built under the existing bridges for perhaps $500 million or $600 million, which would about equal the cost of the Columbia River Crossing’s bridge portion, Johnson said. The trusses would have to be strengthened, he said, and the drawbridge towers would need to be rebuilt for several hundred million dollars more.

Oregon Live, February 10, 2014, 6:27PM
Richard Read,
Columbia River Crossing: Commenters on Interstate Bridge story bash and praise the CRC (highlights)

Several readers were surprised by Oregon bridge engineer Bruce Johnson’s estimate that seismic retrofitting of the existing bridges would cost perhaps $500 million or $600 million, plus several hundred million dollars more to rebuild the drawbridge towers. In 2006, a panel of experts including Johnson concluded that a raw retrofit would cost between $88 million and $190 million, increasing to a range between $125 million and $265 million when overhead was considered. (Bear in mind that the CRC has spent $190 million on planning, so far).

CRC: Frequently Repeated Lies

As an economist–someone who follows data and trends closely–and as a long time observer of the CRC public relations machine, I’ve become accustomed to the Orwellian spin that they frequently put on the facts. The latest sign of CRC’s continuing disconnect from reality is its effort to deny that higher gas prices and declining traffic volumes matter at all.

The Columbia River Crossing has updated its “frequently asked questions” page. You can view it here:

Here is CRC’s completely numbers free explanation of traffic trends:

Can we rely on traffic forecasts with all the volatility in gas prices and other factors?
Traffic count data marginally declined between 2006 and 2009 at some locations when compared to historical daily volumes. This was the result of the stagnant economy and slowing regional population growth, as well as increased price of fuel over that time period. It is typical for traffic volumes to decline during a recession and to rise during boom periods. These fluctuations are expected. However, traffic counts during peak commute periods have remained steady or increased. Based on the most recent counts, evidence suggests that traffic volumes are resuming their long-term upward trend on both I-5 and I-205.

CRC officials–like highway builders everywhere–are simply in denial that a world of $4.00 gasoline has not only erased but actually reversed the trend in driving. This is not a temporary, local, aberration: it is a permanent national change.

Here is the latest data from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Americans are now driving about 25.6 miles per day–7 percent less than in 2005, and 14 percent below the 1990-2005 growth trend. And plainly, this is not a recession induced blip (you can see recessions in 1990-91 and 2001-2002, and they look nothing like the hard right turn we’ve seen in this line since 2007. And, even though the economy is recovering–VMT per capita continues to decline. All indications are that Americans are continuing to adjust their behavior in ways that will reduce VMT further in the years ahead.

The truth is, CRC continues to rely on traffic forecasts that haven’t changed in the past five years–traffic forecasts that are built on the underlying assumption that gas will always cost about $1 per gallon in real terms, and that driving and sprawl increase forever without limit. We know none of those assumptions are true. This means that the rationale for a massive increase in highway capacity, the accuracy of the project’s environmental assessment, and the validity of the project’s toll-based financial plan are all simply wrong.

The Final EIS approved in December, 2011–made no changes to the traffic forecasts CRC has used since 2007. And the FEIS document doesn’t even contain any data about actual traffic levels on the I-5 bridges after 2005. These are symptoms of advocates who are in deep denial about a changing world, and who will simply ignore or edit facts that don’t fit with their worldview. This is no basis for making a multi-billion dollar investment.