Opinion: Just say no

The Oregon and Washington highway departments are at it again, pushing a 10- or 12-lane, five mile long freeway widening project that’s likely to cost at least $5 billion.

David Bragdon suggests how to deal with highway widening zealots

David Bragdon
City Observatory

The Oregon and Washington highway departments are at it again, pushing a 10- or 12-lane, five mile long freeway widening project that’s likely to cost at least $5 billion.

They’re responding to objections with a combination of misleading rhetoric and feigned acceptance of “conditions” to minimize the project’s impacts.

This is exactly what they did with the failed Columbia River Crossing a decade ago:  approval “with conditions” becomes unconditional approval.

A warning from one of Portland’s past leaders about the deceptive high pressure sales tactics used to sell a bloated freeway boondoggle.

The only sensible response from policy makers ought to be:  Just Say No.

Editor’s Note:  David Bragdon was the President of the Metro Council, Portland’s regional government, from 2003 to 2010.  He led the agency at the time the Columbia River Crossing was developed and was part of the local Project Sponsors Council.  Since 2013, Bragdon has been Executive Director of TransitCenter, a New York based foundation that works with leading transportation advocates and agencies in major cities across the nation.  This commentary was originally published at City Observatory in 2021, but is again timely, as Portland leaders ponder a multi-billion dollar highway widening project.

Legend has it that the Columbia River Crossing project died in 2013 only because a handful of right-wing politicians in Washington State killed it. This inaccurate re-writing of history was spun retrospectively by the project’s formidable public relations machine to obscure the real reason their project failed: the incompetence and mendacity of the project leadership at the Oregon and Washington State Highway Departments, ODOT and WSDOT, who made a series of errors that doomed the project long before those Washington State legislators administered the last rites. The first gentle pull on the plug occurred in 2010, when a “blue ribbon panel” of highway and bridge experts in engineering, finance, planning and design – handpicked by ODOT and WSDOT, with the assumption they’d be told what they wanted to hear with a great big rubber stamp of support – issued a damning report: the peers from agencies and firms from around the country found that ODOT/WSDOT had selected an untested bridge type, had conjured a finance and tolling plan that did not add up, had ignored or misled other agencies like the Coast Guard, and had made countless errors, large and small. Among those fatal mistakes, the two state agencies had poisoned their relationships with local agencies and the community with a pattern of half-truths, untruths, and broken promises. It was this pattern of deceit that weakened the CRC proposal to the point that the right-wingers in Olympia could ultimately provide the death blow. 

I know. I was an up-close witness to ODOT/WSDOT management’s bad faith for several years. Leadership at ODOT frequently told me things that were not true, bluffed about things they did not know, made all sorts of misleading claims, and routinely broke promises. They continually substituted PR and lobbying gambits in place of sound engineering, planning and financial acumen, treating absolutely everything as merely a challenge of spin rather than matters of dollars or physical reality. 

That history is important, because if you’re not honest about the patterns of the past, you are doomed to repeat them. Unfortunately, I understand that’s exactly what’s going on with the rebranded CRC: the same agencies, and even some of the same personalities who failed so spectacularly less than a decade ago – wasting nearly $200 million and building absolutely nothing – have inexplicably been rewarded for their failure by being given license to try the very same task, using the very same techniques of bamboozlement. It’s the definition of insanity. I ask the community members and elected leaders of the Portland-Vancouver area in 2021 to take it from me, who learned it the hard way 2007-10: do not fall for ODOT management’s chronic misrepresentations, or its outdated technical methods rooted in the 1950s. You are being misled in the short-term, and your constituents’ descendants will be stuck with a terrible project and debt for decades. The I-5 / I-205 corridor between Oregon and Washington State has serious challenges – too much congestion at peak hours and peak directions, old and out-moded infrastructure, poor air quality in adjacent communities – but the two State Highway Departments’ approach won’t fix any of those problems and will make some, like traffic and emissions, worse than today.

I can take you through ODOT’s old playbook, and you can tell me whether they are running it again now: 

The bum’s rush

I understand ODOT management has revived one of its favorite old falsehoods by claiming they are facing an “imminent federal deadline,” and that if local leaders don’t knuckle under to ODOT’s plan–and soon–the region will lose millions or tens of millions of dollars forever.  Creating fictional “federal deadlines” and other federal processes as an excuse for false urgency is a familiar ODOT tactic. From 2007 through 2013, ODOT staff frequently but vaguely claimed that quick action was needed on certain approval steps, and there “there is no more time to consider x or y” because of “impending federal deadlines.” When asked to cite specifically what deadlines they meant, ODOT officials would refuse to answer or parry with generalities. When Congressional staff would inquire with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) or other federal agencies about what deadlines ODOT could possibly be referring to, nobody could say. ODOT public relations staff had made it up. 

 In short, ODOT leadership’s claims that “federal deadlines” are urgently impending are usually fabrications, created by ODOT PR staff (who dominate the agency) to force other parties like local governments to go along with whatever ODOT staff is proposing without scrutiny. (Ironically, ODOT itself rarely meets any real deadlines, and has a terrible track record of doing anything on time. Yet ODOT management insists that everybody else adhere to deadlines that don’t exist.)

One specific example: in the summer of 2010, ODOT public relations specialist Travis Brouwer solemnly intoned that Congress was on the verge of passing a reauthorization bill, and that it was essential that certain approval steps be taken for the CRC for it to be included in this (supposedly) impending bill. Actually, as all Congressional staff knew, and as Brouwer and State Highway Department Director Matt Garrett also must have known, it was an election year and there was little likelihood of a bill passing in that time frame. (Brouwer and Garrett, like much of ODOT management, are better versed in politicking than engineering, being former Congressional staff experienced in lobbying and propaganda.  Like much of CRC’s senior team, they had little or no understanding of modern engineering, planning or finance, beyond a 1956-era grasp.) 

Some of the other ODOT falsehoods which were debunked during CRC v.1, and which you can be on the lookout for again were: 

We can’t consider less costly alternatives.  When asked about projected costs, ODOT staff claimed that federal law or regulation prevented them from considering cost and budget when developing their plan. There could be no value engineering, they said, vaguely handwaving at “federal regulations.” ODOT staff made this statement partly as an evasion so they couldn’t provide a realistic tolling and revenue plan, claiming they were “not allowed” to take realistic revenue availability or costs into account (the way transit projects must, by the way). When US Representative Peter DeFazio, who knows a thing or two about federal transportation law, scoffed at the claim, senior ODOT staff were privately dismissive of him. But ODOT’s claim sounded absurd, and indeed it was: through independent channels we learned that Obama Administration FHWA Director Victor Mendez publicly stated the opposite of ODOT’s statement, and declared that in practice FWHA was encouraging state governments to become more cost-conscious at all stages of project development, not barring them from doing so. In short, ODOT claimed the federal government prevented them from realistic budgeting, while in fact the top highway official in the nation countered that he strongly encouraged it. (This is one of those lies that cleverly twists a kernel of truth:  agencies are barred from excluding options from consideration based solely on cost, but that doesn’t mean they can’t use cost as a criterion in choosing their ultimate action).

We can’t change anything in our plan without violating federal rules.  ODOT also claimed that design parameters such as ramps, grades, turning radii etc. could not be changed because doing so would require FHWA to approve waivers, which ODOT said FHWA was highly unlikely to do. They were adamant that an enormous interchange had to be inflicted on Hayden Island, eroding property values and discouraging redevelopment, because federal regulations required it. This excuse was debunked by ODOT/WSDOT’s own hand-picked “blue ribbon” panel, when Chair Tom Warne (a veteran Utah state highway official) observed that FHWA can be expected to routinely approve hundreds of waivers like that on a project of this size. The problem was that ODOT staff, who have not successfully built anything more complicated than a simple overpass for the past thirty years, did not have the training or sophistication to deal with complex engineering challenges, and just didn’t have the skills to be bothered. In the absence of technical knowledge, ODOT leadership defaults to the one skill they do possess, word-spinning. (To be fair, WSDOT has superior technical skills to ODOT, though most of its talent is deployed in the Puget Sound region, not Southwest Washington.) 

This is special money that can only be used for this project.  Another ODOT staff whopper was the repeated claim that federal money for the CRC was somehow special, could not be used for other projects, and therefore lavish spending on CRC would not deprive other priorities of funding. This claim was exposed as untrue when the project was canceled, and the money was quickly reprogrammed to other highway projects. (Keep in mind, this claim that billions must – must! – be spent on overbuilding I-5 comes from an agency that can’t seem to find a few nickels to fund passenger trains between Portland or Eugene, or paint crosswalks or install signals to prevent pedestrians from being killed on 82nd Avenue.) 

OK, we’ll go along with what you want (Not really:  fingers crossed).  When under more intense pressure, ODOT management will grudgingly make vague promises to “consider” things, which over and over it proved it had no intent to do. (Or, as in the case of I-5 Rose Quarter, create an advisory committee that it completely controls – or else.) ODOT leadership routinely used its control of the technical process to renege on its commitments. For example, to win support from the Metro Council, Mr Garrett pledged to commission an independent review of the project staff’s highly questionable estimates about greenhouse gas emissions. (This same Mr Garrett had a bad habit of recycling untruths: he was later caught providing falsified GHG estimates to a legislative panel, with the fantastical notion that more traffic leads to less GHG.)  Within weeks of the Metro Council accepting his pledge and voting to endorse the project, ODOT leadership reneged on the promise of an independent review, with Garrett privately telling a Metro official, “we just need to greenwash” this project. (Current ODOT management used a similar technique recently, by bringing in an expert panel ostensibly to audit traffic forecasts for their monstrous I-5 Rose Quarter proposal, but then forbidding the panel from considering induced demand, the primary factor at issue. It’s like saying, “OK, OK, OK, we’ll bring in independent experts to evaluate our claim that pigs can fly” but then directing the experts to ignore the existence of gravity.) 

In another fingers-crossed promise, under pressure from the community due to the very real probability of induced demand and an understandable community desire that Hayden Island not be further obliterated beyond the existing highway blight, ODOT leadership pretended to reduce the size of the Columbia River Crossing from a proposed 12 lanes to 10 lanes.  It cleverly changed all the project’s promotional materials to describe the road as a 10 lane facility.  But it actually made no changes to the physical width of the roadway and structures it planned to build.  What it cheekily did do was to delete from the project’s Final Environmental Impact Statement every single reference to the actual width of the massive bridges it was proposing to build.  A public records request forced WSDOT to divulge plans showing that the supposed ten-lane bridge they had agreed to build was 180 feet wide — exactly the same width as it had been when ODOT described it as carrying 12 lanes. 

ODOT and WSDOT’s manipulative tactics became more and more apparent as local officials compared notes with each other in the first decade of the century. State officials probably banked on local leaders from the two sides of the river never talking to each other, but the more we did talk, the more we realized how we were being played off against each other by the self-styled amateur Svengalis in Olympia and Salem. ODOT would whisper to Oregonians, “don’t worry, the tolls are going to pay for it all, and light rail is a must,” while at the very same moment WSDOT would whisper to Washingtonians, “aw, don’t worry, the tolls are going to be low, and we’re going to get rid of this light rail component, just go along for now.” (WSDOT was far more savvy than their ODOT cousins too, by larding up the project with interchanges far to the north that functionally had very little utility for true interstate traffic but were designed for intra-Clark County short trips. WSDOT winked at their constituents and confided, “We got those rubes down in Salem to fall for Oregon paying for 50 percent of our sprawling suburban interchanges!”)

 The revived CRC, aka “Interstate Bridge Replacement,” is more of the same

 In the past year, WSDOT and ODOT have been attempting to breathe new life into the corpse of the expired Columbia River Crossing project.  They’ve started by rebranding it as the “Interstate Bridge Replacement.”  The revived “IBR” project may have changed its name, but hasn’t changed its bad faith efforts to peddle this multi-billion dollar project as if it were the only possible solution to the very real challenges in this corridor. When faced with a challenge, ODOT simply rebrands, without really changing anything. It’s the same old soup in a new bowl, brewed by cynical chefs who, cigarettes dangling from their lips, also cook the books on traffic forecasts, budgets and GHG modeling. 

The new name itself is a distortion.  It implies that they’re merely “replacing” the existing bridge, when in fact that’s no more than 20 percent of this giant boondoggle, which is in reality a 5 mile long, $5 billion 12 lane freeway that just happens to cross a river.  The reality looks like this:

Animated GIF courtesy of Bike Portland.

This illustration shows not the new bridge, but the planned widening of I-5 south of the bridge on Hayden Island.  This is no “replacement.”  It is as Congressman Peter DeFazio – whose cautions ODOT routinely ignored during the first chapter of this saga, despite the power and knowledge he has – aptly described it “a gold-plated project,” with most of the project’s cost being driven by highway department plans to widen long stretches of freeway on either side of the bridge itself.

As City Observatory noted, the revived CRC project kicked off with an enormous lie and yet another fictitious deadline.  Project Manager Gregg Johnson told Oregon and Washington Legislators that they’d have to repay the Federal Highway Administration $140 million if they didn’t move ahead with the project by 2024.  That, of course, isn’t true, if Oregon and Washington choose a “no-build” alternative, FHWA regulations say there’s zero repayment liability.

The Columbia River Crossing failed because state highway officials were simply dishonest every step of the way in their efforts to sell this project. Their coverup was essential to them, because as agencies whose main activity is rural, single-purpose highways, they lacked the skills to plan and build a complex, urban, multimodal project in a community that rightfully demands authentic engagement. In the face of that need, they obscured real likely costs, either bungled or intentionally exaggerated tolling forecasts, refused to release accurate renderings, and invariably substituted branding, bullying and propaganda for problem-solving.

I’m saddened to see that almost a decade later the Governors of Oregon and Washington have unleashed the same agencies again to use the same techniques and simply continue this stupefying track record of incompetence and dishonesty. Those of us who were leading the region 10-15 years ago learned a difficult and expensive lesson about the perils of trusting ODOT and WSDOT management and their methods.  We can only hope that today’s leaders profit from our experience and not repeat our mistake of trusting the phony sales pitches used to push this project, which is the wrong solution to a set of very real problems. 

While the two state highway departments are fixated on their 1950s style non-solution, the I-5 corridor is beset by major challenges: high demand in certain directions at certain hours, freight being delayed by an abundance of single-occupancy cars, one structure that is now over a hundred years old, inadequate transit and biking and walking options, and a legacy of harm inflicted on North Portland, Hayden Island and downtown Vancouver. Those are very real challenges which can be addressed only with truth, creativity, first-class planning and engineering and design, credibility with the public, and post-1950s concepts like demand management. The two State Highway Departments have already proven they have none of those attributes. Their proposal will not solve the real problems and will actually exacerbate them, and their methods and lack of credibility will lead to more wasted years and wasted money. Rather than being trusted and empowered, ODOT and WSDOT should be removed from their role as project managers – which they’ve amply proved they’re not qualified for – and replaced with an interagency team rooted in the region that can get this important job done. 

ODOT and WSDOT take one truth, and then extrapolate many untruths from it. ‘We need to do something to fix the problems in this corridor,’ is true, but ‘Therefore we need to do the most expensive, stupid something’ is not true.

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