The Big One: Will fresh quake fears shake loose cash for Oregon's Capitol … – OregonLive.com
SALEM — Work to seal the physical wounds left after a failed legislative fight over earthquake retrofits to the Oregon’s Capitol — exploratory holes in the 1938 building’s foundation and walls — could start any day.
But “saddened” advocates pushing to revive the $337 million project, championed by Senate President Peter Courtney, say they’ll wait before admitting defeat — even in the face of new obstacles that threaten to raise costs and further thin their support.
“It may just be a crack,” said Gary Wilhelms, a former lawmaker and longtime Republican aide who serves on the Oregon State Capitol Foundation’s building committee. “But the door is open.”
That lifeline, however, remains extremely tenuous. And sources say newly focused attention on the odds of a catastrophic quake staggering the Pacific Northwest, courtesy of a recent New Yorker article, has done little to change the political calculus that killed the project after bitter negotiations this session.
“It’s a good article,” said Legislative Administrator Kevin Hayden, whose office is overseeing the work. “I wish it would have come out a few weeks sooner, though.”
All the same, project supporters insist on holding out hope.
After spending $18.3 million — as of Tuesday — planning and designing a refurbished Capitol, they say some lawmakers and residents may be loath to see that money go to waste. What’s more, the state’s newly adopted two-year budget still has room to fit the project.
And even though the project’s political support crumbled suddenly —House Democrats fretted that any seismic money not spent on schools would open them to Republican attacks in 2016 — skeptics including House Speaker Tina Kotek didn’t stamp out all hope.
If supporters can somehow show they’ve got the public on their side, Kotek and others said, then the project could be revived as soon as next February’s short session.
“We’re prepared to take Speaker Kotek’s challenge to heart,” said foundation chairman Fred Neal, who ran Oregon’s elections division for nearly a decade. “It’s not for politicians and bureaucrats. It’s for us. It’s for Oregonians.”
Meanwhile, other complications have cropped up as work winds down abruptly on a project that had been expected to last four years.
The state’s Department of Administrative Services had set aside the former home of the Public Utility Commission for use as a temporary capitol. But on Wednesday, a spokesman for the agency confirmed the Legislature had formally surrendered its claim.
“We’ll be actively working to get that space filled with another state agency,” said the spokesman, Matt Shelby. “It will not be available in 2016.”
Asked if Gov. Kate Brown might intervene to keep the building available, a spokeswoman said Brown remains “interested in finding a solution” but will instead wait to see whether “the Legislature decides to move forward in 2016.”
“The public needs to understand and agree this is a paramount decision, that this is something that really needs to be acted upon,” said Kristen Grainger, Brown’s communications director. “And that’s the next step.”
Lawmakers had previously listed the state fairgrounds and a large state-owned warehouse as backup options.
But because planners have focused on the PUC site, which would have needed extensive renovations, preparing another temporary capitol will require spending fresh money on new design work.
Hayden said he wasn’t immediately sure how much of the $18.3 million spent so far on the Capitol project involved the PUC building. Overall, fixing up that property, and moving lawmakers in and out, was expected to cost more than $24 million.
Work to finish designing the would-be refurbished Capitol will continue over the next few months. Hayden doesn’t know precisely how much more the state will spend finishing plans for what’s essentially become a shelved project.
“If we don’t do that now and we stop, and we can’t get the same people later,” Hayden said, “then we have to start over and retread the same ground again.”
Other firms, not working on finishing the design, will be let go. Hayden said he expects the final bill will fall short of the $29.1 million the state had budgeted for design and planning work.
Money to repair some 20 to 30 exploratory holes — many left unfilled for months as a means of educating the public and lawmakers about the building’s inner workings — will count against that pot of money.
One of the test sites, a damp 5-foot-deep pit carved into the basement floor, testifies to the watery soil beneath the building. Other holes, much smaller, were bored into walls, revealing how the Capitol’s marble cladding connects with its brick framing. Some of those openings may remain open.
“They’re kind of cool to look into,” Hayden said, “even if they’re not necessary.”
In recent years, state officials have ordered extensive earthquake planning, under the assumption that a nearby seismic timebomb, the Cascadia subduction zone, poses a 10 percent chance of unleashing a magnitude 9.0 earthquake over the next half-century.
That’s one reason why lawmakers this month approved $175 million in bond money to help schools make seismic improvements. The Legislature approved an additional $125 million for general improvements that could also be used on quake-related projects.
Experts say thousands of schoolchildren in Oregon face death or injury in quake-prone buildings.
The Capitol’s master plan, approved by a bipartisan group of lawmakers in 2013, also makes clear the risks of leaving the collapse-prone building untouched: the deaths of many of the 1,000 people inside the Capitol daily when the legislature is in session — including kids and parents and teachers who regularly visit on field trips.
Advocates say that still manages to understate the damage. They note those deaths could easily include the governor, legislative leaders, and other state officials and lawmakers expected to provide order and make decisions in the aftermath of a catastrophe.
“There is no worst-case scenario/fail-safe government for the people of Oregon,” said Neal, who pointed out seismic fixes in other states such as Utah, Idaho and California. “It’s another reason to be prepared for the big one.”
Neal and Wilhelms say foundation members plan to meet next week on how best to plead their case with Oregonians. Both have visited newspaper editorial boards and met with lawmakers, and they expect to do more of the same.
But it’s also unclear what kind of support legislative leaders are looking to see. A spokeswoman for Kotek, D-Portland, declined to comment beyond the speaker’s past public remarks. Courtney, D-Salem, didn’t respond to a message left for comment with a spokesman.
“I’m going to stay in until I know it’s done,” Wilhelms said. “It became a very political issue. There’s no doubt about it. But I respect both sides of leadership and their opinions. I’m not mad at anybody. I’m just disappointed.”
— Denis C. Theriault