CRC Demise? The Broken Third Leg

by lewwaters

Guest post by Professor Robert Dean

Klineline Bridge, Vancouver, WA, circa 1955

Has the CRC tripped over the HCT Act?

I once asked the Columbia River Crossing Project Director, Don Wagner, what would cause the project to fail. He looked pensive for a moment and then blurted out, “failure of funding.”

I sensed that he seemed somewhat melancholy. Republican Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler had just been elected to Congress and the Columbian newspaper had endorsed the opponent of Democrat State Representative, and CRC booster, Jim Moeller. Various citizen movements were ascending to public prominence and the Vancouver City Council was still reeling over an infamous “meltdown” incident. There was, at the time, January 2011, a palpable disenchantment for the project brewing in the community.

However, Mr. Wagner kept up a brave front and explained that funding for the project was a three-legged stool – if one leg fails the whole stool falls. He explained the stool analogy further by pointing out that there were to be three sources of funding, each contributing one third of the total needed for final construction: federal, the two states, and the local contribution (tolls).

Two of the legs were clearly in jeopardy. Oregon had not budgeted their $half billion plus at all. Washington was already $2 billion in the red. And both states were approaching their constitutional caps on bonding capacity and with other projects pressing. The feds? The feds were borrowing from the Social Security Trust Fund and raising their debt ceilings to accommodate record and unheard of levels of borrowing trying to jump start an ailing economy.

But what about that third leg – the local contribution? In January of the previous year, Clark County Commissioner, Steve Stuart, and Metro Commissioner, David Bragdon, had approached Wagner and asked for a scientific survey to gauge the willingness of the local community to pay that third leg; the local contribution, tolls. He did not do it – no need to ask.

If he had asked if we were willing to pay the local contribution, estimated at the time to be about $1.2 billion capital costs (or $8 billion counting toll costs, interest, and cost overruns according to the Impreza study by Joe Cortright), we would have said, “No!” Best not to ask.

Apparently, though, no one thought to consult the law. By Washington State law, RCW 81.104, the HCT Act, they must ask.

By law, they must ask C-Tran voters to approve two essential elements of any high capacity transit (HCT) system:

1)      The system plan itself (Locally Preferred Alternative);

2)      Funding for operations and maintenance.

RCW 81.104.030 (1)

“Transit agencies … shall seek voter approval within their own service boundaries of a high capacity transportation system plan and financing plan.”

At the time, citizens were hammering the City of Vancouver Council, Clark County Commissioners, and the boards of C-Tran and RTC, demanding a vote on the Locally Preferred Alternative light rail plan. They knew instinctively that in the US we get to vote on increased taxes.

No wonder Mr. Wagner seemed melancholy. Wagner is a registered professional engineer. Every professional knows the laws that govern his profession. He not only knows the statutes, he knows the intent behind the statutes and he knows how the courts have ruled interpreting those statutes. As a professional engineer he is bound, by law and ethics, to alert his employer whenever, and as soon as, he thinks the project might fail.

Why then, would he circumvent so explicit a statute as the HCT Act? That story is as yet untold. What we do know is that Wagner was replaced as Director of the CRC about 5 months later by Nancy Boyd.

Ms. Boyd worked wonders. The project was already a year behind schedule when she took over the reins. In the six months following her arrival on the scene, she rushed through approval of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) without much public opposition (or review for that matter) and had secured the Record of Decision (ROD) from the FTA before the year was out. Whoa!!

Too bad there was no public review of the FEIS. The FEIS was approved by all 4 participating agencies several weeks before it was published and available for review by the public at large. Each agency board, C-Tran and RTC here in Washington, received an advance copy of the voluminous report and politely listened to and watched a PowerPoint presentation on its contents given by high ranking CRC staff members.

If the public at large had been given a chance to peruse the volumes of reports and exhibits, so confounding to councilors, individuals may have noticed certain details of particular interest to themselves.

For instance, the owners of Thompson Metal Fab may have noticed that the bridge was too low. C-Tran critics may have noticed that the CRC was contemplating taking diversions from the budget for maintenance and operations of buses  and using the money saved to fund operations and maintenance of light rail – an illegal move. Downtown Vancouver residents and businesses may have noticed that they would have to endure 6.3 years of construction with no compensation and little mitigation beyond signs and publication of construction schedules to warn away their customers. Certain critics of the financial plan may have noticed that the two states were planning to fund their leg of the stool by taking out TIFIA loans. TIFIA loans are federal loans at 3% interest over 30 years that get paid back, principal and interest, with tolls. In other words, by the local community; we would pay for two legs of the stool, not one. And, horror of horrors, tolling critics might have pointed out that the CRC FEIS did not fill the gaping $half billion hole in expected revenues to pay the local contribution – there was no investment grade tolling study as recommended by the first Independent Review Panel and by the Oregon Treasurer.

The 170’ high Crescent City Connection Bridge blocks passage of a Carnival cruise ship on the Mississippi River at New Orleans

Other than that, the FEIS was a pretty impressive document for having been rushed through as it was.

One other small item might also have been noticed by anyone with an eye for detail if they were picking through Chapter 4, the financial chapter, of the FEIS. On page 31 the CRC acknowledges the following: “Under the HCT Act, a transit agency must receive voter approval of a “high-capacity transportation system plan and financing plan.”

Notice that little conjunction, “and.” In Boolean algebra “and” indicates separate discrete sets – same in law. According to the CRC the HCT Act requires C-Tran voter approval of two separate and discrete elements of the CRC light rail plan:

1)      The system plan

2)      The financing plan

Two votes: one for the plan AND one for the financing. Sorry guys, that’s what it says! No, I am not an attorney.

If I were an attorney, I might have noticed several other interesting provisions of the HCT Act:

1)      Every funding source for high capacity transit is subject to approval by the voters (RCW 81.104.140 (4));

2)      WSDOT cannot by law pay more than 80% of the costs “for high capacity transportation planning efforts” – the local community has to pay the other 20% (RCW 81.104.090(1));

3)      C-Tran must study the impact of light rail on adjacent and nearby properties – direct and indirect effects (RCW 81.104.100 (3)).

4)      Light rail or bus rapid transit must be a “reasonable alternative” to regular buses – cheaper per passenger mile to build and operate (RCW 81.104.120(1)).

If I were an attorney, I might have noticed several other interesting allusions to the HCT Act:

1)      Both C-Tran and RTC approved the Locally Preferred Alternative with conditions consistent with the HCT Act – C-Tran voters must approve funding of the operations and maintenance of light rail whatever the source of that funding (RCW 81.104.140 (4));

2)      The C-Tran board delayed the sales tax vote one year at an estimated cost to the project of $100 million (assuming 3% inflation) to comply with the HCT Act requirements for an expert review of the light rail proposal (RCW 81.104.110);

3)      The Oregon Treasurer’s report says the C-Tran vote is on the “critical path” for FTA to release construction funds. In other words, no construction can commence on the entire CRC project until C-Tran voters approve Proposition 1 this November 6 (RCW 81.104.120 (2));

4)      The FTA Record of Decision is contingent on the agencies, C-Tran and RTC, following through on their conditions of approval of the Locally Preferred Alternative. Both agencies made it a condition of approval that C-Tran voters must approve funding of the operations and maintenance of HCT whatever the source of that funding.

Then comes the weekend of September 8 and 9, 2012 – the three principal boosters (no jokes please) of the CRC light rail project publicly announce their simultaneous epiphanies of the futility of asking the voters to pay the local contribution, or even operations and maintenance costs, for light rail. The third leg of the stool is shattered. Chapter 4 of the FEIS, the financial chapter, is shredded. The very thing that commissioners Steve Stuart and David Bragdon foresaw two years prior has come to fruition. The people don’t want light rail; no need to ask.

Now what? 15 years and $160 million down the drain? No! If they learned anything from this debacle they will have learned that there is a capacity problem for transportation crossing the Columbia River. That capacity problem must be solved but light rail is not part of the solution. My advice to the FTA and FHWA is to disband the CRC but salvage what you can. Conduct a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement and revisit the Purpose and Needs Statement. Take out all references to light rail and look for solutions that solve the capacity problem foremost.

Most importantly, thank the local community for their contributions to gas taxes through the decades and assure us that you will put those taxes to good use right here on this the most important international corridor for commerce on the West Coast. Tell us you won’t need any more local contribution from us than that.

Robert Dean

Durham, NC 27713

20 Responses to “CRC Demise? The Broken Third Leg”

  1. I don’t believe Don Wagner was ever the CRC Project Manager…it has always been Doug Ficco until Nancy Boyd came on last year. Don Wagner was (I believe) the head of WSDOT in SW Washington….

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  2. Robert, Thank you for your analysis. So, are there any next steps that we can do to throw rocks in the cogs of CRC?

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  3. Thanks Tiffany. I’ve sent your comment on to Robert and will edit it as he wishes when he replies.

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  4. Maybe this is where Robert got it. Don Wagner was appointed temporary director in 2010 and replaced by Nancy Boyd in 2011

    http://www.columbian.com/news/2011/apr/05/dot-appoints-new-director-for-crossing/

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  5. I believe he was project manager, appointed in the first week of January, 2010 according to the Columbian… co-0director, as I recall.

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  6. Interesting. Doug Ficco, whom I met in April 2011 was introduced to me as the Project mgr and it’s his name signing off ad such on all kinds of documents until Nancy comes on board. Thanks for the clarification.

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  7. When will we learn?
    After several years of attending these meetings and watching this process unfold I cannot believe what a joke it has become. A rather unfunny joke that has been way too expensive at that. I shall never forget the day that I learned that the local state funding was going to be coming in the form of TIFIA loans. I was angry to say the least. This is all about big money and big developers getting it from us. That is all this is period end, greed. The for profit companies that make the motors, rails, wires, electrical components, interiors and various other aspects of these system make big bucks selling them to us. When we don’t want them they lose money. The for profit land developers make big bucks getting federal grants and low interest loans to build for profit mixed use housing with the criteria it must be on mass transit rail lines. Then tey also get us to fund the difference between what they deem the appropriate rent to be and what the “low to moderate” level income tenant can pay. Then they get the cities to grant them tax abatements for the improvements on the bare land that they just made so therefore they do not pay for; general fund budgets in the city or county they construct these units in, nor the port districts, fire districts, library districts, park districts and etc. We pay for those taxes too. Then they don’t even pay the IRS taxes that are due since the properties are not assessed until after the tens years of abatement are completed and therefore there are no 1099s or any such other form reported and the profits made on the abatements are just dust in the wind. Shady? Absolutely! Illegal? Maybe somewhat according to the IRS since you know they want their cut. Unfair? No kidding. That is socialism at its finest folks!

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  8. “Light rail or bus rapid transit must be a “reasonable alternative” to regular buses – cheaper per passenger mile to build and operate (RCW 81.104.120(1)).”
    Portland is the smallest city to have light rail. At $224 MILLION/mile to build light rail in Oregon, it robs capacity for other more flexible transport that takes goods, services, and people to their final destination.
    Tri-Met decreases service every year, mostly bus service is cut. Portland has had a policy of not maintaining residential roads. The citizens just voted down light rail in Clackamas County a few weeks ago.
    Yes, Professor Dean, the purpose and need must be reviewed.
    The truth is, Clark County has fewer residents and jobs than Portland, and is not close to “needing” light rail.
    Light Rail promoters like Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart and Vancouver City Councilor Jack Burkman like to point out that in 30 years we may need it, so we had better get started as soon as possible. Better to evaluate the true and realistic needs of our area today, and double check the assertions of the FEIS rosy predictions.
    The truth is, many buses that cross the river now are empty or just a few passengers. Express buses tend to have more riders but are not overcrowded, and cross the river in good time. Light rail is estimated to take longer than express buses. The truth is, light rail is NOT a need at all.

    Click to access CRC_FEIS_Chapter3_S1_Transportation.pdf


    · P.3-24, Existing Transit Ridership: See the text mid-page, 3,300 weekday daily transit passenger trips across the Columbia River on I-5 (2006)
    If that is both directions, it’s only 1650 trips South, and 1650 trips North. To begin with, what is the true need today?
    What is the actual trips today? About the same as 2006? The FEIS was submitted in 2011, but the data is from 2005 or 2006.
    Even the expert review panel noted that CRC data was old and should be updated, so it is the duty of C-tran and local governments to update the data. Until the true needs are known, why all the focus on cost? Pushing through faulty studies with stale data serves who? C-tran data and statements indicate that current regular bus and express bus service across the bridge is working well. Even in peak hours, the buses across the bridge are not usually full, and can be empty. Every indication is that regular bus service would continue to serve well for years. If demand actually rises in 5 or 10 years, then solutions that are commonly employed like running buses more often, or using larger or double decker buses on certain routes could be considered. Again, what are the true needs today? Realistic growth projections please, not inflated to suit the CRC backers and contractors.

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  9. I’m a recent resident of SW Washington, having escaped from the SF Bay Area in California. I lived through the complete cycle of planning, construction, and operation of the BART ‘heavy rail’ transit system. After 30+ years, not a single one of the promises made during the planning and construction phases has been kept. The last promise to fall, free parking at suburban stations, withered away just a few years ago … but many of the other promises proved to be lies on the very day the system opened for service such as “trains every 90 seconds” (the original computer control system was completely incapable of safely managing trains at less than 4 to 6 minute intervals — while the Bay Area also had a conventional rail commuter line (SF-San Jose) that operated trains with peak departure rates of 2 minute intervals using traditional rail control systems. Another promise, “a seat for everyone” evaporated within the first few months. Due to the failure of the control system to run trains close together, trains immediately filled past seating capacity — and much money was spent retrofitting rail cars with overhead bars for standees to hang onto.

    BART is considered one of the most successful transit systems built in the last 50 years in the U.S…. and it requires substantial taxpayer support, subsidizing well paid commuters while local busses (that tend to serve the less well off) have been starved of funding — and many bus routes have been revised into feeder lines to serve BART stations — increasing overall transit time for most bus riders to their final destinations. Even worse, fares on BART have increased much faster than inflation — and subsidies have been “stolen” from state fuel tax revenues (originally established to act as a “user fee” to fund road maintenance and construction). As money from fuel taxes have been diverted to transit programs (throughout the state), roads and highways have deteriorated while planners have lied about “being unable to build [highways] our way out of traffic congestion” (this fable has been disproved by several regions in Texas, where road building has stayed well ahead of traffic).

    I would hate to see southwest Washington fall into the same errors that California has pioneered. The “light rail” plans will not materially help with traffic congestion — and the years of construction will only serve to increase congestion all over the region.

    The money grabbing politicians and their crony capitalists who wish to benefit from the construction use the term “light rail” because the old term “streetcar” might remind folks that most medium to large cities in the U.S. once had extensive street car systems. While there is myth that street cars were taken away by “greedy” oil and automobile manufacturers — there were significant economic reasons to remove tracks and scrap the trolly cars. Tracked vehicles are expensive to manufacture/maintain and the tracks are inflexible — routes are wildly expensive to change as travel patterns evolve over the years. Ongoing operating costs are high, drawing funding away from cheaper to operate and flexible bus routes. In addition, where rail lines intersect or share right away with automobiles, there are additional costs in property damage and auto-passenger deaths, as street cars are unable to stop or start in traffic — and when an accident occurs, all following streetcars are stopped as they are unable to alter their route to avoid the collision site.

    While the old-time street cars tended to have more shared right-of-way than the modern “light rail” projects — the trade off is that far more land is now devoted to light rail trains, increasing congestion for autos along the very routes they were intended to improve. The lesson learned from BART was that it was not possible to deliver a system that would attract significant numbers of riders “away from their cars,” unless the planners also created many artificial disincentives for auto drivers to force them onto the trains. (Even so, when I commuted regularly on BART, on the way home I’d often hitch a ride with a friend — and beat “my” train to the BART lot where I’d parked in the morning.) So, if a rail transit system is installed in southwest Washington, you can expect the next step of the planners would be to interfere with the maintenance and building of competing roads — to force more automobile owners into public transit.

    Even BART — considered one of the most effective transit systems in the U.S. — only handles a tiny fraction of daily trips in the Bay Area. Indeed the last transit operator’s strike did not create a noticeable increase in congestion on the area’s freeway network!

    Please understand, the SF Bay Area has a population exceeding all of Washington. Population density is very high (considered a necessary requirement for effective trail transit systems). There are far more tax payers available to subsidize the expensive luxury of a rail transit system. The planners will immediately start trying to implement the Agenda 21 concepts (high population density in “transit villages” near stations). The planners ignore the market and attempt to force changes in personal habits, but usually fail — just look at the “transit villages” in the Portland area — crammed with cars (without sufficient parking) and negligible passenger volume added to the rail transit system. Do you really want a repeat of that experience on THIS side of the river?

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  10. Don’t forget the millions planned to be spent on the 30 pedestrians and 150 bikers that use the bridge each day.
    The last plan that I saw was to have on full lower deck for bikes & pedestrians – 25% of the entire bridge deck area for just 180 people/day.

    of course another 25% of the bridge deck area is for the 1650 people who use transit.

    Thanks
    JK

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  11. “Friend of John Galt” – If you don’t know, the interstate bridge originally was a street car bridge when it was built in the early 1910’s or so. If you want to confirm that, go to the Clark County Historical Museum, I Bet they can how you or lead you to some information on it. I remember seeing a film somewhere, that shows the street car coming off Columbia St. (yes, the original lines were pulled up in the late 1990s, when they were rebuilding the roads around the Vancouver Hilton Hotel & Convention Center. ) The same street they want to route the new light rail trains to.

    So for just historical context alone, the interstate bridge originally was a rail bridge…. And there was one out in Orchards as well…

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  12. The original bridge may have had tracks, but it was NOT a streetcar bridge. It carried cars, wagons, horse and pedestrians. To call it a streetcar bridge is just another of the CRC’s many lies intended to promote light rail.

    Thanks
    JK

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  13. To see hundreds (thousands?) of people and a lot of cars and NO streetcars, here is a picture taken on opening day:

    http://www.columbian.com/photos/2011/feb/02/17518/

    Thanks
    JK

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  14. Debbie, next steps? You keep doing what you have been doing – working your tail off to get others elected. This time we’ll try to get you elected. Other things we can do? Pack the VDA meeting with knowledgeable merchants; write letters to the Coast Guard pointing out that the land transportation plan is not reasonable; back Jaime for insisting on the vote but point out that if prop 1 passes we still want our vote on the plan itself; put McKenna on the spot – make him take a position on the HCT Act make him do his job as AG if he wants our support in his run for Governor.

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  15. Robert – as someone who actually LIVES in Debbie’s legislative district, I would love to see someone attempt what you are suggesting. I think there are way too many apathetic voters here. So any thing to show some thing like this, might help her out and scare the people she is running against.
    If you think the treatment of some of the pas Republicans was bad, watch out when there is a knowledgeable, packed house at a Downtown Vancouver Association meeting would be like? 😉 Want to see heads role with spin like you never seen before, attempt what you are suggesting, because a certain group in Vancouver believes “they” are in control…

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  16. One more thing. If anyone else has not read the statute in state law that governs the basis for High Capacity Transit, I suggest that you become an informed voter and head over to: http://apps.leg.wa.gov/rcw/default.aspx?cite=81.104 and study up on it. Nothing is more fun than talking to a legislator and actually “knowing” the statute it better than the they do.

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  17. it’s a good thing there’s no Fresno Area Rapid Transit.

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  18. Ficco worked for Wagner until Wagner retired (or was forced out?) Don, as an engineer, was openly skeptical of most of the spurious reasons floated for CRC (safety, environmental, Pearson, etc.) Don’s wife was/is Patty Murray’s local political rep, but Don never seemed baised towards Democrats. I would have went with Don’s recomendations – but NOT Nancy Boyd’s. Ficco always seemed to me to be an engineer too (objective) but he won’t take positions counter to the powers-that-be.

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  19. Martin – From what I remember and you could be totally correct on your assumptions on that….

    Well, I did little Googling and it looks like both Doug and Don have gotten pay grade increases.

    src: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/Regions/SouthWest/Contact.htm if you want to do further research. I am not sure if either are still directly involved in the CRC process now. That all might have been handed to Nancy Boyd for political reasons. But I can’t justify that comment, but it is only a real guess….

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