Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland where development began over a hundred years ago, has learned the hard way about the strings that come with taking federal money:
In the dim light of recent news and numbers, you’ve probably forgotten that the Lake Oswego streetcar was, once upon a time, a project worth celebrating as a wise and timely investment. […]
But the value of that astute move has been all but lost in the recent traffic of misleading budget numbers and the self-defeating “environmental impact” process mandated by the leaden, one-size-fits-all feds. […]
But the streetcar is the environmental alternative when a community is wrestling with carbon footprints, traffic congestion and our addiction to OPEC, and the draft environmental impact study — draft, mind you — placed an 18-month hammerlock on the project.
“Interminable and ridiculous sums up the federal process,” says Judie Hammerstad, the former Lake Oswego mayor. “Portland circumvented it with its first streetcar by not asking for federal funds. We don’t have that luxury.”
“To get federal funding, you have to do an environmental impact statement,” notes Doug Obletz, who heads the project team. “The federal government dictates the process.”
That does no one any favors, save the Dunthorpe residents who will move heaven and rail-line to ensure a streetcar never intrudes upon the sanctuary of their river estates.
In exchange for this needlessly complex review, the feds pick up 60 percent of the project cost, which has been mischievously pegged in the vicinity of $458 million.
And here’s how the money was spent:
Another is the cost of the draft EIS, a 543-page report that cost — thanks to the feds — $4.3 million to produce.
Let’s put that price tag in perspective. If you paid a reasonably bright engineer $75 an hour and gave her 3,000 hours to work through traffic patterns, noise issues, job creation and design options, the tab would be $225,000.
The draft EIS cost 19 times that amount, and no one even blinks. “It does seem like a lot of money,” said Bridget Wieghart, a project manager at Metro, “but it’s fairly typical for this kind of process.”
Obletz breaks it down for us: $470,000 for the conceptual engineering, which TriMet couldn’t handle on its own; $440,000 for the traffic analysis, performed by David Evans and Associates; $1.37 million for additional consulting fees and the writing assignment; another $1 million for Metro’s input; $150,000 for “public outreach” …
And, yes, that $330,000 to Shiels Obletz Johnsen, which bills at a rate between $60 and $200 an hour.
Once upon a time, the streetcar was low tech, low overhead, low design and construction costs, and worth celebrating. “A beautiful, streamlined process,” Obletz says.
Then the feds showed up. And the train wreck began.
Systemic Failure talks a lot about the private consultant scourge, but I’m still not exactly sure why this is more of a problem in American than it is elsewhere. Is it pure rent-seeking on the part of the consultants? Does the federal government mandate such an expensive and intrusive process (I’m talking here about the aforementioned protests from Dunthorpe)? What’s stopping the agency from paying a couple of hundred grand and not letting vested suburban interests interfere?