Last Saturday the Antiplanner participated in a conference about the Columbia River Crossing, a government-planning effort aimed at replacing a bridge that doesn’t need to be replaced so Portland can sneak its light-rail system (and associated land-use planning) into Vancouver, Washington. One of the more fascinating presentations at the conference came from Tiffany Couch, a forensic accountant who has been studying the budget of the planning team called the Columbia River Crossing.
It is public knowledge that this team has already spent $130 million doing nothing but pushing paper around. Since the bridge itself could be built for less than a billion dollars, that’s a healthy share of the cost. Of course, the planners’ goal is to spend well over $3 billion on the bridge, which would include money for light rail and other bells and whistles that are probably just as unnecessary.
What the public didn’t know, until Ms. Couch’s presentation (4 MB PPTX file), was that almost all of this $130 million was paid to one consulting firm. In 2005, Couch revealed, ODOT and WSDOT issued a “notice to consultants” that they wanted to hire someone to write the environmental impact statement for the project (page 17 of Couch’s presentation). “The project team anticipates the total cost of the environmental phase to be in excess of $20 million.” It asked consultants to submit and proposal with a list of their qualifications.
It isn’t clear how many consultants responded to this notice, but only one, a Portland company called David Evans and Associates (DEA), was considered “qualified” and so it got the contract. Curiously, DEA’s bid did not say how much it expected the project to cost, but the initial contract was for $50 million (page 18).
Three years later, the states modified the contract, adding $45 million to the amount that would be paid to DEA (p. 21). Curiously, the change in the contract specifically said that DEA would not do anything more than it was originally expected to do (p. 22). All of the “proposed services” were “within the scope of the original contract,” state WSDOT, but “we needed the additional dollar amount to continue working on the project” (p. 23).
Three years later, in 2011, another modification was made adding $10 million more to the contract (p.24). So when the original notice said the cost would be “in excess of $20 million,” it meant $90 million–and counting–more than $20 million.
So we have what amounts to a one-bid contract whose original bid did not specify a cost and whose cost so far has more than doubled from the original contract even though the amount of work to be done hasn’t changed. If being a government contractor is so lucrative, it is a wonder that no one else submitted a qualified bid.
This raises all sorts of questions and speculations. Was the bidding process rigged so that only one firm would qualify? According to Couch, DEA makes major contributions to all sorts of political campaigns. Is it possible that making such contributions is an unspoken part of the contract? Or does DEA make those contributions because it has an incentive to promote the project because it is likely to get a large share of contract for engineering the actual bridge?
This whole EIS process has become a giant scam that spends lots of transportation dollars without improving transportation–and often the end result is extremely waste projects. Interestingly, both Democrats and Republicans have proposed various ways of streamlining the planning process so it costs less and takes less time. The Antiplanner supports such streamlining but insists that it also should be accompanied by fiscal incentives designed to insure that any fund projects are truly cost effective.