By Stevie Mathieu, May 8, 2013, The Columbian
The Columbia River Crossing project does not need an investigation that goes above and beyond the standard oversight process, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee wrote recently in a letter to conservative leadership in the state Senate.
The Democratic governor’s letter was a response to one he received last month from Senate members of the Republican-led majority coalition, which also includes two maverick Democrats. Members of that coalition asked Inslee for a “formal, independent investigation” into the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement, citing financial questions raised by two forensic accountants.
“This project has already been audited repeatedly. Nowhere in their audits have they found evidence of cost overruns, potential violations of state and federal regulations or a pattern of misinforming the public and elected officials as you allege in your letter,” Inslee wrote. “There has been due diligence in auditing this project, and the concerns raised in your letter do not justify the expenditure of the thousands of taxpayer dollars that you want to spend on a duplicative review.”
The letter sent to the governor asked that the state look into the project’s contracts and expenses, and that the governor meet with members of the Senate’s majority coalition to discuss their concerns about the project.
In Inslee’s response, the governor says he had the opportunity to host that meeting but remains convinced that the CRC project must move forward as proposed. He also said he remains committed to helping the less than 1 percent of river users who would be negatively impacted by the project, and that the CRC is vital to the state’s economy.
“Each year, $41 billion worth of freight crosses the bridge moving goods up and down the West Coast,” Inslee wrote. “This is predicted to increase to $71 billion by 2030. Growing congestion in the corridor threatens truck movement with consequences for our region’s economic ties to trade. This is important, because two in five jobs in Washington state are trade-related.”
Inslee’s response, dated May 1, was addressed to the Senate’s majority coalition leader, Rodney Tom, D-Medina. Inslee copied state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, on the letter.
In their April letter, Senate leaders cited the work of Vancouver forensic accountant Tiffany Couch, who has published a series of reports critical of the CRC in recent months. Couch’s findings were also vetted by another forensic accountant, Linda Saunders, of Jefferson County, the majority coalition said.
In his letter, Inslee said the assertions made in Couch’s study lacked merit. He also said Couch’s report lacks certain professional standards when compared with other organizations that have reviewed the CRC.
“As you may know, WSDOT maintains an audit department that does not operate in conjunction with other parts of the agency,” Inslee wrote. “(The Washington State Department of Transportation’s) audit office holds itself to the highest professional standards and best practices. … In contrast, the report you cite does not conform to customary standards.”
Couch said Wednesday that she stands by her work.
“I disagree with the governor’s misinformed comments on so many levels that it does not merit a response,” Couch said by email. “I stand behind the work we performed.”
This year, legislators passed what’s being called a bare-bones transportation budget, and within it is a provision that the CRC receive a forensic audit. That budget bill has yet to be signed by Inslee, who has the power to veto portions of it.
It is unknown whether Inslee would veto the forensic audit requirement from the budget.
“At this point, we haven’t weighed in on that,” Inslee’s spokeswoman Jaime Smith said Wednesday.
Of the nine legislators from Clark County’s three major legislative districts, Reps. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, Liz Pike, R-Camas, and Brandon Vick, R-Vancouver, were the only ones to vote against the transportation budget plan, which also included nearly $82 million to cover ongoing planning costs for the CRC.
Additionally, newly appointed state Transportation Secretary Lynn Peterson announced in March that her department would conduct a broad review of several of the state’s megaprojects, including the CRC. The review will be led by Ron Paananen of CH2M Hill Inc. The engineering firm has received money from the CRC, and Paananen is a former WSDOT administrator.
In addition to replacing the I-5 Bridge, the $3.4 billion CRC project would extend light rail into Vancouver and rebuild freeway interchanges on both sides of the Columbia River. Project backers are hoping state lawmakers will commit $450 million toward the CRC this year, and those lawmakers will convene for a special legislative session on Monday.