Saturday, March 19, 2011

“Is Anyone Listening?” Sessions on Columbia River Crossing Boondoggle

Mayor Leavitt

During the past month, several “Listening Sessions” have been held in the greater Portland/Vancouver area regarding the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) Project. If you’re not familiar with the CRC, it’s a scheme to replace the I-5 Bridge that connects Portland, OR with Vancouver, WA. Its current estimated price tag is $3.6 Billion, which easily makes it the largest public works project in the history of this part of the country.

The first of these “Listening Sessions” was one I announced in a previous article, entitled Vancouver Council’s Rush to Build “The Bridge of the Tyrants” . This was a U.S. House Transportation Committee “Listening Session” being held, in part, as the result of encouragement from U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. Although I was very pleased and encouraged to announce this meeting, I also experienced some significant related frustration because my travel schedule meant that I wouldn’t be able to attend. According to The Columbian’s account of this meeting , it seems that I wasn’t the only one who experienced frustration related to this meeting. I’m confident that Congresswoman Herrera Beutler’s intentions for this meeting, as a “Listening Session” were genuine. Apparently Committee Chairman, U.S. Rep. Mica, had something else in mind, though. The Columbian reported that Mica “wielded his gavel — and his wit — to cut short testimony on the bridge project”. This report went on to note that less than half of the people who came, “(hoping) to send a message to Congress, pro or con, about the Columbia River Crossing were lucky enough to get seats inside the small community room at the Clark Public Utilities building” and that “only five, chosen by lot, got to ask questions at the session’s end.”

Next came two “Listening Sessions” conducted by the CRC itself. These were held on March 10th. One session was held in Portland during the day and a like session was held in Vancouver in the evening. I attended and testified at, the evening session. Since the observations I would make about this meeting are, generally, the same as comments I’ll make about a more recent meeting, I won’t go into detail about this event. However, I do want to say that, aside from public comments offered regarding the final design of the CRC’s planned bridge, my impression was that all other aspects of this “Listening Session” were just for show. Since it appeared that the CRC was electronically recording this meeting, I’m assuming they will be posting this recording on their Website - If so, you can check out the details of this session and judge for yourself.

The most recent “Listening Session” on this topic was conducted by We The People – Vancouver (WTP). This was the first in what WTP intends as a series, saying they are “scheduling meetings where representatives and subject matter experts will be invited from both sides of this project and both sides of the river to listen, speak, and dialogue.” Especially since I’ve been such a vocal proponent with WTP’s Leadership to do this, I’m pleased that they have launched this initiative. The Special Guest invited by WTP for their first “Listening Session” was Vancouver’s Mayor, Tim Leavitt. Here too, since I’ve been such a vocal proponent of Mayor Leavitt doing more to engage with his constituents on this topic, I was especially pleased that he accepted the invitation.

Unlike the previously mentioned CRC “Listening Sessions”, I didn’t get the sense that Mayor Leavitt’s participation at WTP’s event was just for show. However, I can’t say I felt that Mayor Leavitt’s listening, though seemingly genuine, could be categorized as the sort of listening one does, with ready willingness to hear why they should consider adopting the opposing view/s of another. It really seemed more like the sort of listening a person does to better understand another’s view/s in order to respond with as much detail as possible to justify view/s held coming into the dialogue. This was magnified by the demeanor of the two Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) that Mayor Leavitt brought with him to the meeting. Bringing SMEs along was, of course, a wise thing for Mayor Leavitt to do. However, their attitude (particularly with one) seemed condescending and adversarial ... no way to foment an ideal atmosphere for open dialogue. Here again, let me point out that WTP electronically recorded this meeting. I’m told they will be posting this recording on their Website soon - Please feel free to check out this recording and come to your own conclusions about this meeting.

Regardless of their demeanor, the presence of the SMEs that Mayor Leavitt had join him for the WTP “Listening Session” helped me to start getting a better idea of where the disconnect is between government officials, who seem to be hell-bent on the present CRC scheme and a significant portion of the community, whose attitude is, “This scheme does not map to what we want or need.” And, if I’m right about the source of this disconnect, I’d like to offer some suggestions on steps to take to move in the direction of resolving this disconnect.

As is most often the case, what SMEs present can be “down in the weeds.” Once dialogue is initiated at that level, naturally, it will tend to remain “down in the weeds.” Though I’m not a SME and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to try to participate in their “down in the weeds” dialogue, listening to it gave me the opportunity to observe that the disconnect on this topic isn’t really at that level. It remains at a much higher level … a level where non-SMEs, like Mayor Leavitt and folks like myself still need to connect before handing the matter over to the SMEs. With that in mind, I thought it could be helpful to take a second look at some of the views Mayor Leavitt expressed at this event and contrast them with my own.

The first views I want to revisit are personal ones. Mayor Leavitt pointed out that he moved to Vancouver in 1980 when his family moved here from Yakima. His primary purpose in bringing this up was to point out that he has found Vancouver “a great place to live” and wanting to maintain that reality is a key to why he “strives to make decisions that are in the best interest of the community.” By contrast, my Wife and I moved to Vancouver more recently … in 2005. However, we did so without having a close friend or family member living here. We chose to move here because we too saw it as “a great place to live” and we want to do what we can to help keep it that way. My point here is that I genuinely believe, at this high level, Mayor Leavitt and I are on the same wavelength.

However, I did notice that Mayor Leavitt’s views and mine began to diverge noticeably when the level of observations dropped down to those specifically related to the CRC Project. To illustrate this, here are a few of Mayor Leavitt’s related views, contrasted with mine:

Leavitt - The I-5 Bridge should have been replaced long ago.

GW - I understand that the present I-5 Bridge has its shortcomings and it won’t always meet the needs of our community. It seems to be meeting today’s needs though. It’s not like you hear reports of parts of the bridge falling off into the Columbia River or that it has anything to do with the present challenges in the very down local economy.

Leavitt – The CRC discussion has been going on for the better part of two decades. There’s been a lot of public outreach on this topic. We’re now in the 11th hour of this project.

GW - How is it that I and a significant number of others in our community have the sense that we haven’t been engaged with on this topic, if the CRC discussion has been going on so long, with “a lot of public outreach”? Why is it that, while making a show of “listening”, elected officials and bureaucrats predominant efforts seem to be aimed at keeping the public from officially expressing their views through elected officials or through voting initiatives? Considering the significance of this, admittedly, important project; shouldn’t this be done before determining that we’re at the “11th hour” and cramming a boondoggle that includes every imaginable bridge-feature down the throat of the public?

Leavitt - Folks on other side of the river won’t allow another bridge beyond the CRC Project.

GW - What?! Oregon is a sovereign State but it’s not a foreign country. If they really believe this sort of extortion is appropriate, in order to force us to have the bridge project they want us to have, wouldn’t it be just as appropriate for WA to install toll booths just for Northbound vehicles with Oregon license plates that want access to WA, Canada and AK?

Leavitt – We need to act now before we lose the Federal money available for this and while President Obama has this project on his radar.

GW – Again, I say “What?!” “The Federal money” comes from us. Why should our taking the time to assure that our money is spent on what we need and want have anything to do with whether or not our money is available to us?

Of course, the contrasting views above do not represent an exhaustive list. But I believe that the items listed are typical of the disconnects between the opposing sides on this topic and I do believe that the overall disconnect that continues to bog down this project remains at this level. With that in mind, here are some ideas on appropriate steps that could be taken, in order to move forward from here:

In my testimony at the CRC “Listening Session”, I stated, “You can’t ‘unscramble’ an egg.” My point with this allegory was that I didn’t expect the CRC to undo the work they’ve already done or to un-spend the money they’ve already spent. However, I did urge them to “stop throwing in more eggs and stop scrambling them” until the public is fully engaged on what they want and what is needed. So, my suggestion for Step #1 here is to simply put the brakes on this project until the above-mentioned disconnect is resolved.

Switching metaphors, instead of trying to “unscramble an egg”, I suggest taking the “peeling back the onion” approach to this project. In other words, deal with this matter, layer by layer, along lines like these:

Use both traditional and new media to educate the interested public on each major issue. Then, using the same tools, determine how that public sees the need, as well as what they want, on each of these issues. Where there seems to be consensus, close the issue and move on.

For issues where predominant consensus isn’t clear, schedule real listening sessions and/or voting initiatives. Here too, when this process produces consensus on an issue, close it and move on.

Using this sort of approach, as Step #2 will eventually allow us to arrive at a real 11th hour, not an artificial one.

I know this seems like an overly simple approach to addressing a major disconnect about a $3.6 Billion project. However, it does appear to me that, somehow along the way, some simple basic high-level understandings were not achieved before the project moved along, getting way “down in the weeds”, to a point where no one seems to see a way out without a result being forced on one side or the other. I, also, recognize that, even if it makes sense to many, it may not be realistic to expect my suggested approach to be taken by all the governmental entities involved. My hope is that this approach will, at least, be adopted by the City of Vancouver, with Mayor Tim Leavitt as its Champion. Even if this ended up meaning that Vancouver was the “lone voice in the wilderness”, with a position on this project that opposed the position of every other governmental entity involved, Tim Leavitt could hold his head high while continuing as Mayor and afterwards, knowing that taking this stand provides the strongest affirmation of his commitment to “(strive) to make decisions that are in the best interest of (our) community.”


A Bridge too far Removed from Reality

Submitted by Mike M Boyer on Sat, 2011-03-19 11:15.


+-Since Oregon will NOT tolerate a third bridge it must be that our current Interstate bridge will have to be demolished before construction on the Pie-In-The-Sky bridge can begin.

When I build myself a newer and better house I do not demolish my old one. I sell it or rent it out.

The Folly of the Light Rail Mafia never ceases to amaze me.

What I wanted to know and

Submitted by judyinwash on Mon, 2011-03-21 05:50.


+-What I wanted to know and didn’t hear – what were the factors that changed between 1999 and 2006 – when light rail was written into their results, but not before. Why WON'T Portland let us build other bridges? Why work JUST on the I-5 bridge?

I heard on the radio yesterday there was a poll taken in Oregon and 60% want the new bridge. Why didn’t they poll Clark County who will be most affected by it?

And what happens when the fiat system (federal reserve notes) are only worth 1 cent on the dollar? Can we get our money back if they can’t finish it?

I'm looking into the possibility of working from home for the company I work for in Portland. I already pay almost $200/month just for parking! I can't afford another $100/month just to travel the bridge!

I'm so angry about this whole thing and NO ONE will listen!