VANCOUVER -- The fiery debate is coming to a head. Will the Washington Legislature agree to pay for its part of the Columbia River Crossing? The more than $3 billion project cost has been scrutinized. The bridge would cost Oregon and Washington $450 million each.
Inside that bill there are tens of millions of dollars written under the umbrella of the CRC Project, which have nothing to do with the bridge structure itself.
"This is a terrible way to spend taxpayers' money. Shame on them and shame on the promoters of this project,” argued Washington State Sen. Don Benton (R-Vancouver).
"I've never heard such a terrible excuse for bad government," added U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Camas).
So what has these lawmakers so upset? The fine print.
"You've got the CRC, sort of this rogue agency down there with a never-ending checkbook of taxpayers' money, spending money like crazy," said Benton.
Digging through public record requests and an independent forensic audit, Newschannel 8 has found more than $85 million worth of projects, miles from the bridge structure itself, including:
- $51M for a new TriMet maintenance facility in Gresham--located some 10 miles east of the CRC project
- $2.7M for a TriMet administrative facility in South Portland
- $10M for a "curation facility"
- $15M for a restoration project at Lewis River, about 22 miles north of the project
- Nearly $344,000 for upgrades to Portland's Steel Bridge, six miles south of the project
- $6.9M for Hood River Channel Restoration, located 60 miles east of the project
"The most important thing is we get this project right and we're good stewards of taxpayer dollars," Herrera Beutler said.
Rep. Herrera Beutler went looking for answers. She wrote a letter last month to the head of the CRC project, Nancy Boyd.
In an interview with Newschannel 8, CRC Oregon project director Kris Strickler said none of the above items are pork and no one tried to hide them from public knowledge.
"There are a few other things that are more than this bridge," said Strickler.
The CRC project includes a light rail line. TriMet said it will need space to house more of the cars, that's where the $50 million Gresham TriMet facility comes in. Strickler said taxpayers are getting a deal.
"Rather than building and constructing two full maintenance facilities, we're able to capitalize on the investment we made in the TriMet system and expand that facility."
But at what cost? The Gresham facility needed to house an additional 20 cars for the Milwaukie light rail line cost $8 million; the CRC, with 19 cars, will cost $50 million.
Strickler said the project costs are justified. “It's a function of what you need to upgrade and accommodate your improvements,” he said.
These lawmakers aren’t buying it.
“I can’t figure out why this is the most expensive light rail project in light rail history,” Herrera Beutler said.
“It’s one more reason to distrust government," Benton added. "Why would government try to hide $80 million worth of pork in this project? Because they can.”
“I don’t think it’s pork at all. I think this is an important project,” said Oregon State Representative Tobias Read (D-Beaverton).
Read carried the Oregon version of the bill. He said all the projects in the proposal have been vetted, are needed, and it's time to start building.
“It’s incredibly important for us to move forward with this project now. If we don’t, we’ll be starting over at the beginning,” said Read.
Herrera Beutler said it’s time as well. “It’s time for folks to recognize we can come back to the table and draw something that’s more fair to everyone involved and that’s more balanced.”
So what about that museum? The CRC project director said the construction will impact the Vancouver Historic Reserve and if crews find any historic artifacts during the build, it will go in the $10 million museum.
Complete coverage: Columbia River Crossing