Sparks Fly as Lawmaker Grills LaHood on Columbia River Crossing Transit

From the beginning of today’s hearing, Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee made it clear they weren’t going to let Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s last appearance before them be an easy one. While the hearing’s purpose was to examine the department’s budget request, the tough questions LaHood fielded on the budget were nothing compared to the fight one lawmaker picked about the Columbia River Crossing.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler wants to take light rail out of the Columbia River Crossing.

Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Tom Latham derided the administration request for $50 billion for “immediate transportation investments” as “a proposal we’ve seen three times before” which, like the 2009 stimulus package, is “not paid for or offset by reductions elsewhere.” He dismissed the plan to pay for transportation with war savings as “dubious,” saying, “Many members hope that the drawdown of our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan will provide an opportunity to reduce spending and the deficit, and not serve as excuse for even more spending.”

LaHood told Latham he “can’t have it both ways.”

“The first two years I was in this job you all criticized us for not coming up with a way to fund transportation,” LaHood said. “For the last two years, after receiving criticism for the first two years, for no funding, we’ve come up with a funding mechanism.”

Even worse than defending a gimmicky pay-for, LaHood tied himself in knots promising the U.S. DOT “has never promoted building anything to get anywhere faster.” He defended this position when it came to the Columbia River Crossing in the Portland area, which Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler raked him over the coals for, and even for high-speed rail, which he pledged was not actually about increasing speeds. A weird position, indeed.

Latham noted that the administration budget proposal included $40 billion for rail and wondered when the administration might send over a draft proposal of the rail reauthorization those numbers are based on. He reminded LaHood that the administration never actually sent a draft surface transportation reauthorization.

LaHood tried to turn the tables on Latham, saying the president was busy with guns, immigration and the sequester, and when Congress does its work on those three issues, Obama will bring out his bold plans for transportation. LaHood has made this argument before, and it’s one I find perplexing. Isn’t that why there are Cabinet secretaries, with thousands of people working under them? No one at DOT is working on guns and immigration, but I bet someone there has a pretty good handle on their plans for the next rail bill.

The real fireworks came when Herrera Beutler started in on the secretary for his support for the Columbia River Crossing. She wants to take light rail out of the project and make it BRT instead. She said the transit on the bridge is going to be the most expensive light rail in the country, though she bungled the estimate, saying, it was “$293 million for a 2.9 mile expansion, so it’s $293 million per mile.” She compared that to what she said was a national average of $35 million per mile. (A recent study showed capital costs for one light rail mile to be about $80 million, actually – compared to BRT’s average per-mile price of $452 million $25 million.)

That’s when she asked if it was really worth it to shave one minute off commute time and LaHood said, “we don’t promote building roads or bridges to get places faster.” Over and over, he made the argument that he owed it to the people who have spent 10 years planning the bridge to get it done, an argument which Herrera Beutler easily shot down.

“We take our cues from the people that are in charge,” LaHood said, to which she retorted, “Well, guess what? I’m one of those now.”

She said the light rail deck makes the bridge too low for ships to pass under, making the engineering of it unpermittable.

Many advocates agree with Herrera Beutler that the CRC is a massive boondoggle of a road-widening project, though they tend to think light rail is its one redeeming factor, not the reason the whole thing should be thrown out.

LaHood spent a little more time in the land of make-believe when he insisted that, despite what the railroad industry says, Positive Train Control mandates would take effect, on schedule, in 2015. After all, safety is the department’s number one priority. Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) gave him ample opportunity to preserve the commitment to safety but also acknowledge that there is widespread concern about the deadline, and he wouldn’t do it. He said the problems were financial, not technical, and DOT will put money into it.

Everyone’s favorite discretionary grant program got a mention, too: LaHood let it slip that the fifth round of TIGER grants, totaling $475 million, will be announced Friday. Latham wanted to know if it wouldn’t make sense to use an authorized program, like Projects of National and Regional Significance, instead of an unauthorized program like TIGER, which was invented by the stimulus and has been kept alive through subsequent appropriations?

LaHood basically told him to lighten up. “You all like TIGER,” he said. “Somebody around here does. We’ve had five programs!”

Latham noted that PNRS was authorized in MAP-21 but only for one year. He asked whether there was really any evidence that DOT is using TIGER for projects of national importance, and LaHood pivoted immediately to TIFIA, which has attracted 29 letters of interest so far.

Finally, LaHood pledged that the president’s vision for high-speed rail “has not been blurred or diminished.” When asked about the department’s priorities going forward – with him or without him – LaHood put high-speed rail at the top of the list.

“There’s no secret around here about what the president’s vision is for the next generation of transportation,” he said. “That’s high-speed rail. That’s the president’s vision. He announced it four years ago. We’ve invested $12 billion. I’ve been to 18 countries looking at high-speed rail. And the common theme in every country is a federal investment, a national government investment, the way we did with the interstate system.”

Though it’s clear LaHood and Latham don’t agree on much of anything, Latham was genuine when he thanked LaHood for his service at the end of the hearing and said that he was sorry to see LaHood go. He thanked him for his leadership on safety, especially texting while driving, and then said, “You defend the indefensible pretty well sometimes” – a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one.

35 thoughts on Sparks Fly as Lawmaker Grills LaHood on Columbia River Crossing Transit

  1. Portland’s light rail (MAX) is in no stretch of the imagination high speed rail. A High speed rail link between Portland’s Union Station and Vancouver’s Amtrak station is a real solution people could get behind, 8 minute commute times and plenty of parking for park and ride, with the real possibility of expanding north along the Amtrak right of way north to Ridgefield and beyond.

  2. The CRC has had all sorts of opposition. Proponents say it’ll improve conditions for biking and walking, yet they cut a major part of that (and stuck the bike/ped path in a tunnel under a noisy/smelly/dark freeway).

    Enviros are opposed to it because it’ll increase sprawl and increase global warming emissions 32% in the area.

    Health advocates are opposed because it’ll increase asthma rates in an area of the city that sees asthma rates three times higher than other areas already (due to the freeway).

  3. The people of Clark county have said repeatly they do not want max in vancouver.. And the waste of money, the corruption, and the blatant disregard of the people voice is politics for politics sake, not the will of the people. They will be tolling the residents of Clark county, and the mayor was elected on that promise. But then the minute he got into office he joined this boondoggle. The design of the bridge is too low for water traffic.. Which is the life blood of his area. No tolls, no light rail!

  4. I am pretty sure that “BRT’s average per-mile price” is considerably less than “$452 million.” That is getting close to heavy-rail subway numbers.

  5. The CRC has mutually exclusive design requirements that prohibit a new bridge in the current location. For the price of this boondoggle, Portland/Vancouver could invest in the next paradigm of transportation, solve all the congestion problems and be the poster child for the city on the edge of tomorrow:

  6. WA state law gives citizens in a transit district the right to vote on proposed commuter rail. Clark County citizens rejected light rail on the proposed CRC bridge, (56,51% against) in November, 2012. Kudo to Rep. Herrera Beutler for representing us, and respecting our vote. Light rail is the root cause of a too low bridge design that will kill Clark County jobs. Bus service is a better fit, more flexible in route and vehicle size and type, and vastly more affordable.

  7. Where do they get that $452 million per mile on BRT? I was just in Everett WA a few weeks ago, they have 26 double decker buses that go—I assume at a rapid speed—into Seattle, which is several miles. And they paid $23 million for them.

  8. I see that all the usual suspects are here touting their selfish dream of a free auto-only bridge (paid for by someone….anyone else) so they can flood North Portland with more cars and the area outside the hyper-porous “Urban Growth Boundary” charade that Clark County runs with McMansions.

    Oregon has most of the jobs in the area. If you want to work there, people, you have to play by their rules. They’re happy to let us work in their state but they don’t want our cars.

    And don’t start bleating about how we have to pay income tax and get nothing for it. That’s true. But we also take money out of the Portland economy which would recirculate there if the jobs were held by Oregon residents. The tax take is no net gain for them; the job is going to be held by somebody, paying the same tax rate on average. But we take probably 50% of what we earn there with us to Washington.

  9. Those Everett double-deckers are not “BRT”, Ron. They’re “express buses” running on I-5 in the HOV lanes. They do have BRT in Snohomish County, but it’s the Swift along old highway 99 as far as Aurora Village. It doesn’t go to downtown Seattle.

    You are right that the $452 million figure is ludicrous, but BRT “done right” — meaning with exclusive reservation, TSP, and off-board loading — doesn’t cost that much less than LRT. It’s maybe 60% of the cost, mostly because the vehicles are much less expensive, but in a corridor which really can support reservation, the longer trains and larger cars possible with LRT does yield somewhat lower operating costs because fewer trains are needed.

    Again, not hugely lower costs, because the overhead maintenance, but some.

    There can be cost savings with BRT, especially if it’s watered down like it is in King County, where the RapidRide is really just cool new buses with longer stop spacing. It rarely gets signal priority.

  10. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around this part:

    “That’s when she asked if it was really worth it to shave one minute off commute time and LaHood said, ‘we don’t promote building roads or bridges to get places faster.’ ”

    In Illinois, the state department of transportation has chosen alternative 7.1C instead of alternative 15.4 in the Circle Interchange project. 15.4 got a “minus” sign where documents said its design would only allow drivers to reach 40 MPH and 7.1C got a “plus” sign where the same document said drivers could reach 55 MPH. There are some travel time savings for all drivers in the region, according to the study, for both alternatives.

    To link this back to LaHood not promoting building roads to get places faster, the Illinois DOT announced on Wednesday its $9.53 billion road and bridge-building program that LaHood’s department will pay 76% of!

  11. $452 million per mile for BRT? That doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

    And indeed, a quick look at the actual study shows that it’s complete crap. The $80m/mile for LRT comes from 15 projects that met a threshold of 5% of the alignment being on viaducts or tunnels.

    The $452m/mile for BRT comes from only two projects, one being the Silver Line in Boston, that met the 5% threshold. Except the Silver Line is 100% grade separated, and construction involved tunneling above an active subway tunnel, beneath the foundations of active buildings, and under the ocean. This is like finding the per-mile cost of the Big Dig and saying that it’s a representative per-mile freeway cost.

    As if that weren’t enough, the authors then take an unweighted average between the Silver Line (1.0 mile) and the other project (Pittsburgh West Busway, 5.6 miles). Wrong methodology again.

    FWIW my livelihood depends on people building rail projects. This kind of schlock – which is obviously, demonstrably inaccurate – is counterproductive because it undermines solid pro-rail arguments.

  12. Yep. I looked at the alleged “study” and it is completely bogus. See my other comment in the thread.

  13. My bad for quoting that Railway Age study — the BRT figure is preposterous and I shouldn’t have repeated it. BRT shouldn’t cost more than $25 million / mile.

  14. It is probably the weirdest thing a transportation secretary could say. Getting places faster is pretty much why most transportation infrastructure is built.

  15. If you put in plenty of parking for park and ride, the traffic getting into the station will be so bad, that people will just drive to Portland.

  16. Improvements and planning will be necessary, but people will have a real CHOICE. A C-tran bus from Fishers landing to Vancouver Amtrak 15 minutes along highway 14, plus a bus lane to the station, add a ten minute commute using the rapid transit to union station. 30 minute commute from Fishers landing to downtown Portland. No use of Tri-Met, no driving on Oregon roads. Washington problems Washington solutions.

  17. It’s a bit odd-sounding, but isn’t he right? Most of the projects he’s talking about are to increase capacity and give people alternatives to existing infrastructure. High-speed rail won’t speed travel between Los Angeles and San Francisco – it will instead divert air traffic to rail, and open up landing slots for long-distance flights.

    Although I suppose it certainly sounds wrong to say that USDOT has *never* promoted *anything* as a way to get somewhere faster.

  18. Framing discussions of BRT and LRT in terms of upfront capital costs fails to properly consider operating costs, as well as the level of investment necessary to actually make BRT work. US projects often analyze BRT using costs associated with sub-standard service and benefits attached to the highest level of service and the mismatch tends to validate poor decisions. Additionally, BRT construction costs are often buried in those associated with roadway reconstruction and expansion, thereby suppressing per mile capital costs attached to building BRT facilities.

    BRT is best in some scenarios, LRT in others. Anyone that argues for one or the other all the time is either misinformed or stands to gain personally from the decision.

  19. Technically, LaHood is absolutely correct – they don’t build for speed, they build for the benefits that are calculated based upon increased speed.

    Speed is simply a variable that co-varies in transportation models with the benefits that are selected as indicators of project success. Generally, the closer to design-speed, the greater the benefits.

    How we define needs and measure project success, now that’s a problem.

  20. Who gives a rodent’s hindquarters what we in Clark County say about “light rail”. If Oregon sticks to its guns and says “no new bridge without LRT” we will have LRT in Clark County or there will be no bridge.

    In all honesty, because I do agree that the whole project is too massive and will flood North Portland with yet more cars driven by yet more Orange County imports, I’d like to see “no bridge” option. But there are too many people seeing money to be made and land to be developed in Clark County for that to happen.

  21. Dude,

    This is sooooooooooo overkill for the scope of the problem it isn’t even hilarious. It’s just weird.

  22. Not plural “orders of magnitude”; in most cases, just one. Either you don’t understand the concept (a power of ten in normal usage) or you don’t know how much BRT costs in ordinary installations.

    If an urban region magically has a pair of existing traffic lanes on a street which has enough transit demand for frequent service and at the same time has little enough traffic to surplus a pair of lanes, then all it costs is the paint, traffic signal priority and stop improvements. You might get that for $4.52 million dollars per mile (two orders of magnitude below $452 million) if you’re happy with right-hand-running BAT lanes, which is generally inferior to center lane reservation. If you want real BRT with relatively free-running operations like LRT outside the CBD does, that then requires much more elaborate protected stations, similar to those required for LRT.

    Anyway, that it is a rare happenstance that such a reservation is available.

    Normally to add genuine BRT to an existing corridor requires adding lanes for the buses, preferably in the middle of a street or on some sort of non-highway right of way, like the Orange Line in LA. For those installations, the usual savings are mostly in the lower cost for the vehicles and avoidance of the catenary and supports for LRT. The ROW still has to be graded, and a bus-quality lane mile is maybe 2/3 the cost of a track-mile, so the on-the-ground structure isn’t that different.

    So $45.2 million per mile is a reasonable median cost per mile for “BRT done right” (one order of magnitude). Not that different from a typical Max level LRT project. It’s definitely cheaper than Seattle’s Link, which appears to aspire to being BART North everywhere except the mile between International District and SODO stations and two and a half miles along MLK in southeast Seattle.

    So far as ongoing operating costs, the maintenance of the catenary is not cheap, and LRT operators typically make more per hour than do bus drivers. But the capacity of each vehicle is greater an it’s possible to train them. Portland shows it’s pretty much a wash between frequent service bus service and LRT operations.

  23. The Giant Highway Boondoogle Bridge which is the CRC is too low for ships even WITHOUT the light rail deck. I have no use for Herrera Beutler. The CRC is a mess, while the “common sense alternative” actually makes some sense.

  24. “To do it [Chicago is] taking an existing traffic lane as Cleveland did and
    further, eliminating all left turns for the full extent of the project.
    That took some bravery.”

    Yeah. I’m astounded. That’s the sort of BRT I can actually support. It practically never happens; proposals are always “pave new lanes”, and rail is invariably superior to that.

    It’s often still more effective to build LRT on routes like this — Cleveland’s “Healthline” is quite clearly getting worse ridership than it would have as a train line, while having higher running costs — but if you are reusing existing road lanes, then BRT can actually save you on capital costs relative to laying rail. It’s amazing how rarely that happens.

  25. The Railway Age article cited a study by its author and by some other guy who is in the rail business, that came up with ridiculous cost figures for BRT. Was that article and that study simply found on the web and cited, or did somebody push that article and study on the author of this DC Street Blog article? If the latter, who was pushing that study?

  26. Until she acts legislatively, she’s playing us. She’s had 3 years there
    and done nothing. And going after LaHood doesn’t change anything.

    Until Herrera actually DOES something, she’s NOT taking a position: she’s practicing what’s known as “bright, shiny object” politics, which are done entirely to make you BELIEVE she’s taking a position.

    If she has, in fact, taken a position, her lack of ACTION indicates that
    the REAL position she’s taken is in support of the entirety of the whole

    She’s made it clear she DOES support replacing a bridge that does not need
    replacing, and that she supports tolls to actually accomplish that.

    So far, the only thing she HAS done is SAY she is opposed to loot rail.

    As always, the question people need to be asking themselves, repeatedly, and simply, is this:

    What has she DONE about the CRC, besides stand by and allow it to be funded at the federal level?

    The answer is “nothing.” And that speaks much louder and longer than her contrived, bogus exchange with LaHood.

    Any Republican in the state senate has already done 100 times more than
    Herrera EVER has on this subject. Ann Rivers and Don Benton have done
    more in one DAY than Herrera has in 6 years in elective office… since
    she didn’t do anything when she was in the Washington House, either.

    Don’t be fooled. The only thing that matters is outcomes. And hers have been utterly abysmal.

  27. That’s not fair to you. You are not the source of the disinformation. You didn’t invent that $452 million figure, you found it and mistook it for fact. And then you corrected your mistake and admitted the error.

    I think there is plenty of blame for the ones who invent that sort of disinformation to deceive people, for the purpose of promoting premature rail instead of a more logical sequence of transit development. I have seen an utterly ridiculous and unbelievable economic forecast rolled out to push premature rail in Loudoun County, and nobody admitted their mistakes there. And now I have seen a BRT price estimate that exceeds even the Dulles Rail / Silver Line (HEAVY rail) price by about two to one – and the Silver Line is already double priced!

    Government is carelessly handing out unbelievable amounts of borrowed money in the name of infrastructure and economic stimulus, and scam artists have hit the ultimate jackpot! Every political trick is used, to confuse the public and promote premature projects that are badly planned and massively overpriced. The winners will be the project managing agencies, the crooked politicians, a few big construction firms and the big bankers. The losers will be the small investors, taxpayers, tollpayers, and people with bogus pension plans.

    But the guilty ones do not admit anything, they just lie through their teeth. That’s a lot different from being tricked by disinformation.

  28. I kind of want to give him the benefit of the doubt in this situation because he was under some pressure from people who have no idea what his job is.

    But I don’t want to give him that because I think he’s deliberately “misspeaking” because his department does EXACTLY that, “technically” (as @Coolebra:disqus puts it) or not.

  29. The only benefits that IDOT has attempted to show are outcomes of the Circle Interchange project are an extremely small reduction in travel delays, higher travel speeds (on rare occasions), and easier turning for trucks.

    They’ve also said they believe crashes will be reduced because of reduced weaving. But with higher speeds, and not addressing any of the issues north and south of the interchange, the crashes may just be moved.

  30. All they need to hang their hat on is exactly what you’ve described as the anticipated benefits…extremely small (so small as to be questionable), presumed higher travel speeds during some window throughout the day, and some vague — or even mis-stated — safety benefits. Multiply their ghost benefits by hundreds of thousands of cars and trucks and, guess what? The project pencils. The smoke and mirrors trick is that the benefits they start with are little more than statistical artifacts coming out of their imperfect model runs. Thus, a statistically insignificant finding (one that can’t be differentiated from random model noise) forms the basis for a huge public investment and results in adverse impacts that they then try to mitigate. NEPA requires avoidance of adverse impacts before mitigation, incidentally.

    As for crashes, I know for a fact that the consultant team had difficulty even determining where the crashes occurred. As IDOT has done on other projects, they take crashes that they know – or should know by way of their research — can’t be attributed to the project area and ascribe them to the project, anyway, to overstate the problem. In the case of the Circle, one of the sources of data integrity issues arises from the presence of crash investigation sites. Crashes get logged to the investigation site near the Circle irrespective of where they actually occurred. Those crashes then get attributed to the Circle Interchange, though the incident may not even be related to the Circle. IDOT says they are from weaving at the interchange, but really can’t support that assertion.

    As another example, the highest crash spikes recorded on I-290 occur in an approaching the area of the former Hillside Strangler project – a project IDOT said would solve crash problems and return I-290 to free-flow, though it did neither. Rather, it remains the highest crash spike in the corridor. What IDOT did in their analysis, though, is attribute those crashes to the section between Harlem and Austin in order to boost their claim that an add-a-lane is needed through that section.

    There are all sorts of problems with the way IDOT reports and uses crash data. Believe none of what you hear and no more than half of what you see.

  31. Traffic peaked on the existing I-5 bridge almost a decade ago. Widening the highway to 16 lanes (on the Washington side) is obscene.

    The light rail is almost irrelevant. The Washington side would have giant parking structures, not a “transit friendly” yuppie gentrification zone. The money for light rail would probably be better spent upgrading the passenger rail between Vancouver and downtown Portland, high speed commuter rail that didn’t stop every few blocks like the MAX light rail. Light rail is nice in the city but as a longer distance commuter rail it’s slow.
    CRC Peak Traffic Alternative

  32. “US projects often analyze BRT using costs associated with sub-standard service and benefits attached to the highest level of service and the mismatch tends to validate poor decisions.”

    We tend to do this with LRT BCAs as well…

  33. The outcomes associated with implemented LRT investments are – by a wide margin – more consistent with planning projections than those associated with BRT. Yes, there are exceptions on both sides, but taking into account the breadth of our experience it becomes quite clear which mode most frequently suffers from acute optimism, if not puffery.

    That is not to say that BRT is not a good choice, but rather when making the case for it project sponsors need to recognize the limitations of the level of service they are proposing, not only to improve decision-making, but also to avoid attaching stigma to facilities that were implemented with expectations that were impossible to meet. Setting up projects to fail is not a good way to cultivate public support for BRT.

    Fact is, there is not one project in the United States that has been built to “Gold Standard”, yet far too many justifications rely on that level of service in making the case for the investment.

    I am a proponent of great alternatives to driving a car. That includes walking, cycling, and transit of all forms. Which is best is often clouded by misalignment of priorities, agency bias, and bad math.

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