28 Oct

Richardson’s proposed road across southern Oregon is a fantasy freeway

Get a map of the state of Oregon.

Draw a line across from Coos Bay on the south coast to Ontario on the Idaho border.

Say it would be nice if the line were a freeway.

It seems you’ve just followed all the steps of Dennis Richardson’s transportation thinking.

A headline on the Republican candidate for governor’s campaign web site declares, “Richardson Proposing East-West Freeway.” It’s a core of his economic development thinking, and in debates, Richardson has repeatedly and enthusiastically championed the idea, including a stop for the highway at Burns.

Such a freeway would, after all, provide badly needed shipping access to the south coast. And the feds do build interstate freeways.

You can almost see the truck stops and the mini-A&Ws.

But get out that map again. There could be some complications.

A freeway from Coos Bay to Ontario would run across the Cascades, the Coast Range, the Umpqua National Forest, the Willamette National Forest, the Deschutes National Forest and possibly a bit of the Ochoco and Wallowa National Forests. It might just be easier to build two international airports.
There are, of course, routes that could be taken around some of the national forest land – although as people in covered wagons discovered a long time ago, it’s hard to get around the Cascades. But every adjustment would lengthen what would already be a historically long construction project.

The distance between Coos Bay and Ontario is 365.6 miles – and that’s if you’re a crow, not a Corolla. If you want to make a point of going through Burns, that gets things up to 389.3 miles.
Even before including any roadside adjustments, this starts to get expensive. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the second-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, points out that based on recent Oregon projects, freeway construction runs around $50 million a mile.

He estimates a starting price on Richardson’s proposed freeway at around $10 billion, which by counting-on-fingers arithmetic actually sounds low. Four hundred miles – because after all, you can’t go directly through, say, lakes – times $50 million actually comes to $20 billion.

Even $10 billion is, of course, already three times the gasp-inducing price of the Columbia River Crossing, which would have required tolls and $1 billion from the feds for light rail – which would presumably not be included on the Coos Bay-Ontario Freeway.

As for getting multi billions from the feds for the project, says DeFazio – who represents Coos Bay, and strongly supports better transportation access for the south coast – “I did really well for Oregon in the last (five-year) transportation package, and I brought in $470 million.”

Lately, of course, Congress has been unable to pass any transportation package at all.

Still, the feds do fund freeways sometimes, right?

DeFazio, noting this would be a “greenfield” project, not on an existing right of way, says, “I’ve been on the Transportation Committee for 28 years, and can’t recall any greenfield project of this scope.”

Not even one connecting a city with a population of 15,946 (Coos Bay) with a city of 11,091 (Ontario), and designed to run through a city of 2,728 (Burns).

Dave Thompson, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, kept saying “very complex” about such a project, and noted the length of time that would be involved just in getting local input about need, and in satisfying the National Environmental Protection Act. Thompson pointed out that the four-mile Dundee Bypass in Yamhill County was under consideration for about 20 years before actually breaking ground this year.

And the bypass doesn’t even run through the Cascades, or through federal land featuring endangered species.

Or have a bill running into 11 figures.

Earlier this year, the Richardson campaign suggested it would provide more details on the proposed road. But we haven’t heard anything, and the campaign didn’t return calls on the subject.

It’s been an unsettling race for governor, even if you’re not named Cylvia Hayes – or engaged to her.

Dennis Richardson is actually running an ad that praises him as someone who will uphold a woman’s right to choose, which takes us as far down the rabbit hole as any tunnel under the Cascades.

Richardson doesn’t talk about a time line for his proposed freeway; he calls it a long-term project.

But it might be possible to make a rough estimate of the construction schedule of a $10 billion-plus, 400-mile highway between a city of 16,000 and a city of 11,000, over two mountain ranges and through national forests and protected habitat.

Offhand, we’ll build the Coos Bay-Ontario Freeway right after we run light rail to the moon.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 10/26/14.

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