Tuesday, April 23, 2013

CRC and Evolving Transportation Funding

Over the past week or so there have been a number of articles written about Portland's own CRC project from an outside perspective. DC Streetsblog in particular has taken an interest with the recent press the CRC has received. Secretary LaHood's final appearance before the House and President Obama listed the CRC as one of the potential projects for New Starts funding. Regardless of your stance on the CRC, this is a prime example of a conflict between more traditional transportation planning and the evolving realities of funding today.

The CRC, though much larger in scope, fits the bill of previous highway department projects around the country. It is a capital intensive project meant to expand highway capacity, improve built infrastructure and expand the current transportation system (in this case light rail). The funding mechanisms for this type of project, however, have changed in the past five years. With the recession, the margin for error for state and local governments has shrunk and there is a dramatic decrease in the resiliency of the states in absorbing projects that overrun their cost projections. As Brenda wrote about earlier, the Federal Government is less able and much less willing than ever to take a major role in these projects for similar reasons. The main talking points at the federal level are focusing on State of Good Repairs, lack of political will for traditional funding sources and a high preference for shovel-ready projects. The CRC possesses none of these points. It will have difficulty obtaining the necessary TIGER grants and TIFIA credit assistance if they are unable to demonstrate a state of good repair for TriMet and a dedicated funding source to back any credit offered. This is unlikely with the labor disputes and route cutbacks on service by TriMet, the degraded state of most of the regions bridges and the strong opposition to increased gas taxes.

Even with the momentum built up by the proponents of the CRC on the local, state and nation levels, there has yet to be a firm commitment at the federal level to fund this project. The rhetoric favors the CRC, but the reality does not. The project is still far from shovel-ready with the bridge height, the design has been called into question again and again, and tolling has been a sticky issue for Washington State.

Stephanie Pollack's presentation on the emerging reality of transportation funding undermines the credibility of the CRC as a feasible project. Oregon does not have the ability to pay for this project should any projection be off or funding source back out. The state is already projected to have a $6 billion road budget shortfall by 2030. This massive project addresses only one of the many failing bridges in Oregon and Washington and will push the transit system further into deficit.

I am incredibly curious to see how the CRC plays out over the next few years. Will this be one of the last projects of its kind, or has that window already closed?

Proofread by Brenda Martin

The CRC: A Highway Boondoggle in Disguise

Sparks Fly as Lawmaker Grills LaHood on CRC Transit

Testimony of Stephanie Pollack Before the Joint Committee on Transportation


  1. I think, although I don't have any data to support this intuition, that the era of transportation megaprojects in the US is coming to a close. There are still examples of current projects (CRC, SF Light Rail, California High Speed Rail), but I expect that these are increasingly going to be the exceptions. Smaller-scale projects, focusing on repair and rehab, will likely take the majority share of funding here.

    In contrast, it seems like many countries outside the US are just beginning to enter an era of transportation megaprojects. My guess is that the design review process, coupled with high local cost sharing requirements, creates a less favorable environment for megaprojects in the US.

    This is all just speculation though. I would love to see a chart of yearly average project costs for federally funded transportation projects, adjusted for inflation.

  2. While I respect your analysis on this project, it's interesting that you weren't able to incorporate FTA's annual funding recommendations report that was just released. This report details the level of funding for all new and small starts project for the next year. FTA has recommended $65 million for the CRC LRT component of the project for FY2014, which is a huge step in the direction of actually building this bridge.
    Also, Oregon has dedicated funding for the bridge, and since such a small portion of the Max Extension will be in TriMet's jurisdiction, it appears that TriMet will have no problem funding the O&M of this project. The true turning point for this project is now in the hands of Washington State and C-TRAN, both who are still discussing the level of financial support for this project.


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