Posted by: bkivey | 1 June 2010

The Process Bridge

For a state that enjoys spectacular natural beauty, abundant natural resources, and a creative and hard-working populace, Oregon seems to get a lot of ink for all the wrong reasons. One of the ongoing foci of controversy, and sure to become a staple in management textbooks as an example of ‘paralysis by analysis’ is the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.

 The bridge, commonly known as the Columbia River Crossing (CRC), was first built as a single span in 1917 for $1.75 million, or about $29 million today and took 3 years to construct. The parallel span was completed in 1958 for $14.5 million, or about $106 million in today’s dollars. The original span (on the left in the photo) was closed to rebuild it to the same profile as the newer span and both spans re-opened in 1960.

The need for a new bridge has become apparent as traffic levels have increased and concerns have mounted over the ability of the original span to withstand a major earthquake. Current estimates for replacing the bridge top a bracing $4 billion. This figure includes rebuilding the approaches and other ancillary work, but it’s an enormous amount of money any way you look at it.

The formal planning and study process for a new bridge has been going on for ten years since 2001. People and governments in the region have been talking about building a bridge for longer and, I would venture to say, spent more money on studies and planning, than it took to build the two original spans. This illustrates a problem not unique to the Northwest, but is certainly a defining characteristic of the region: the obsession with ‘process’.

Folks in this part of the country take a lot of pride in consensus decision-making, including giving every conceivable person or group a voice in determining a result. And this is good and desirable, to a point. The problem stems from not knowing, or being unwilling to establish, where the time for planning ends and action begins. In the town I live in the city government has been sponsoring a ‘visioning process’ for four years. I have occasion to see the mayor and city council members from time to time and I have asked them when the visioning might end and action ensue. This year the mayor has said that one of his goals is to start acting on the suggestions of the citizenry. Progress!

Politicians and others in this neck of the woods often use process to avoid making decisions while giving the appearance of doing something constructive. “Look at me! I’m studying the problem and taking input! Look how inclusive I am!” Process is also a good way to avoid responsibility, because if someone doesn’t like your decision you can always point the finger at someone else. So everyone with an ax to grind gets to feel like they’re making a difference and decision-makers get to look busy and resources are consumed and meanwhile no progress is made in solving the underlying problem, in this case, building a badly needed bridge.

Part of the difficulty with a new CRC is that people want a ‘signature’ bridge, a quite understandable sentiment given its prominence and projected cost. However, this particular location has some rather rigid constraints, including close proximity to two airports, a rail line close to the northern approach, another rail bridge near the span, and the need to be high enough to allow the passage of ocean-going vessels. People also want room for bike lanes and light-rail in addition to sufficient road capacity to handle current and projected traffic levels. Given these parameters, engineers have come up with a series of camels, pleasing almost nobody, except perhaps for those that just want the damn bridge built.

Local leaders haven’t been helping the situation, repeatedly saying that we have to get the bridge ‘right’, apparently not realizing or ignoring the fact that no design is going to please everyone. This is a textbook case of the perfect being the enemy of the good. In order for any progress to be made leadership at some point has to accept that good enough is good enough. Leadership and engineering both deal in the art of compromise, but unlike the engineers, the leadership in the region seems more interested in avoiding decisions than making them.

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