Oregon and Washington highway builders have re-branded the failed Columbia River Crossing as a “bridge replacement” project:  It’s not.

Less than 30 percent of the cost of the nearly $5 billion project is actually for replacing the existing highway bridge, according to independent accountants.

Most of the cost is for widening the freeway and rebuilding interchanges for miles north and south of the bridge crossing, replacing the current bridge is somewhere between $500 million and one billion.

Calling $5 billion, 5-mile long freeway a “replacement bridge” is like saying if you buy a new $55,000 truck it’s a “tire replacement.” 

Nearly a decade ago, the “Columbia River Crossing—the multi-billion dollar plan to build a wider I-5 freeway between Portland and Vancouver—collapsed of its own fiscal weight, after both the Oregon and Washington Legislatures refused to pony up an estimated $450 million each (as well as signing a blank check to cover future cost overruns and revenue shortfalls). Project advocates delayed for as long as they could revealing the project’s true price tag and actually asking for the money, and when they finally did, legislators balked.

Promoters of the newly re-chrisented “Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) Program” have been assiduous in their efforts not to talk about the scale or cost of the project. In two years, they’ve yet to produce a single, new comprehensive illustration of the project—something that’s a standard fare in megaprojects.

That new name is part of the sale pitch.  Ever since attempting to breathe life back into the failed Columbia River Crossing project, the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation and their coterie of consultants have been engaged in an extensive effort to rebrand the project to make it more salable. (According to Clark County Today, over the past two years, $5.3 million—more than a quarter of the project’s $21 million spending—has been for “communications.”)

It’s no longer ever referred to as  the “Columbia River Crossing”—although the project’s expensive PR consultants failed to get that talking point to the White House, as President Biden recently referred to it by it’s obsolete moniker.  instead, it’s the far more modest “I-5 bridge replacement program”.  The project’s public materials talk mostly about the existing bridge, and as we’ve noted, almost never reveal that the total project is 5 miles long, that it contemplates widening this stretch of freeway to 12 (or more lanes), will cost upwards of $5 billion, and require minimum tolls of $5 for every round trip across the river.  Project staff are even leery of letting anyone look at computer renderings of the project.

The drawings of the Columbia River Crossing hint at just how massive this project would be.  The following animated GIF shows the design for the CRC as it crosses Hayden Island, superimposed on an aerial view of the existing freeway.  And none of what’s shown in this particular illustration includes the actual bridge structure crossing the Columbia River (which would be out of frame to the left).

The plans for Hayden Island show that much of the area would be paved over in a complex web of on- and off-ramps, flyovers, and multi-lane arterials.  Little wonder the residents of the island are strongly opposed to the project, saying:  “the massive footprint over Hayden Island .  .  . will destroy our community.”  (Hi-Noon Newsletter, January 26, 2022).

On and off ramps for the Columbia River Crossing on Hayden Island, south of the Columbia River.

Calling it just a “replacement” is PR gimmick to conceal all these elements of the project.  But it also conceals where the real money is going:  the reality is that the “replacement” of the two existing I-5 bridges, is just a small part of the project’s total costs—less than 30 percent according to independent estimates.

The “bridge” part of the IBR is less than 30 percent of total costs

In 2012, forensic accountant Tiffany Couch undertook a detailed audit of the CRC cost estimates.  Her analysis showed that the portion of project costs attributable to the bridge structure was $796.5 million—just a shade under $800 million.  Her analysis showed these costs represented just 23 percent of the total $3.49 billion price tag for the entire project..

Acuity Group, Inc., Report #6 Columbia River Crossing – Cost Allocation Discrepancies, April 8, 2013

The estimates by Acuity Group differ from the summary level budget breakdowns publicly distributed at the time by the CRC project staff.   According to Acuity, CRC transferred a portion of the costs associated with interchange overpass construction to the “bridge” portion of the project, effectively understating the cost of the freeway widening on either side of the river, and overstating the cost of the river crossing itself:

According to the CRC’s own detailed budgets, the costs to build the interchanges in Oregon and Washington are expected to cost hundreds of millions more than what is being reported to legislators, public officials, and the citizens of Oregon and Washington. Conversely, the CRC’s own detailed budget shows that the cost to tear down and rebuild the interstate bridge is hundreds of millions less than what is being reported.

According to the forensic accountants, ODOT and WSDOT shifted a portion of the cost of reconstructing interchanges north and south of the bridge by allocating all of the costs associated with overpass structures for these interchanges to the category “interstate bridge”:

. . . we found that when we allocated the cost of the overpasses associated with each interchange to the cost of the interstate bridge, we were able to reconcile to the CRC’s public communications and maps.

Replacing the existing bridge capacity might be only $500 million

Even at $800 million, this price estimate is too high to count as a “replacement” cost, because  much of the cost is associated with increasing the bridge’s capacity to 12 lanes, rather than simply replacing the existing 6 traffic lanes.  Inasmuch as the CRC plan calls for building two side-by-side bridges (each about 90 feet wide), the cost of “replacing” the existing structure with a new one is just the cost of one of these two bridges.  That means the cost of a like-for-like bridge replacement would be less than $500 million.

The CRC and IBR projects are proposing two new bridges: only one is a “replacement;” the other is an expansion.

It also now appears that the revived IBR project will be even larger and more expensive than the CRC.  For example, it has at a minimum added in some expenses that were cut out of the final CRC design, such as the North Portland Harbor Bridge, spanning the a slough south of the Columbia River (which would add about $200 million to the project’s cost).

What this means is that, if the “IBR’ were just about replacing the I-5 Columbia River bridges, its cost would be far smaller—in all likelihood less than $1 billion.  A right-sized bridge would be much more affordable, and wouldn’t raise the strong environmental objections that are associated with the DOTs freeway widening plans.

The IBR Project is still hiding the cost

The epic failure of the Columbia River Crossing had everything to do with the project’s unwillingness to talk frankly about finances, and the same mistake is being repeated this time as well.  It’s fair to ask, why should we rely on ten-year old cost estimates in sussing out the actual cost of “replacing” the current bridges?

The reason is that, so far, after more than two years of work to revive the project, ODOT and WSDOT have yet to produce any new cost estimates.  Their “draft” financial plan, released in November 2020, is based on the old CRC budget, with some adjustments for inflation.  In the past year, none of the meetings of the “Executive Steering Group” supposedly charged overseeing the project has discussed project costs or financing.

The fact that the project hasn’t done new, ground-up cost estimates isn’t an oversight—it’s a conscious strategy, to avoid revealing the true cost and scale of the project—and subjecting themselves to the kind of scrutiny offered in the Acuity forensic analysis of the CRC budget.

It’s a bit like going to the car dealership to get a new set of radials for your fifteen-year old F150, and coming back home in a  new $50,000 pickup truck, and telling your spouse that it’s a “tire replacement” program.

It’s always been a bloated boondoggle

In less guarded moments, influential local politicians have been outspoken about the excessive costs generated by ODOT and WSDOT.   Congressman Peter DeFazio famously declared the Columbia River Crossing project to be a gold-plated monstrosity.  In the Oregonian on August 14, 2011, Representative DeFazio said:

“I kept on telling the project to keep the costs down, don’t build a gold-plated project,” a clearly frustrated DeFazio said. “How can you have a $4 billion project? They let the engineers loose, told them to solve all the region’s infrastructure problems in one fell swoop… They need to get it all straight and come up with a viable project, a viable financing plan that can withstand a vigorous review.”
(Manning, Jeff. “Columbia River Crossing could be a casualty of the federal budget crunch”, The Oregonian, August 14, 2011).
Later, Representative DeFazio told Oregon Public Broadcasting:
“I said, how can it cost three or four billion bucks to go across the Columbia River?  . . . The Columbia River Crossing problem was thrown out to engineers, it wasn’t overseen: they said solve all the problems in this twelve-mile corridor and they did it in a big engineering way, and not in an appropriate way.”
“Think Out Loud,” Oregon Public Broadcasting, August 18, 2011.

The irony is that if this project were just about replacing the bridge, rather than building a massive freeway, not only would the project be vastly cheaper, there’d almost surely be less public opposition to the project.  The objection isn’t to having a safe, functional bridge, its to building a giant highway that will worsen pollution and bankrupt taxpayers and commuters.