Tens of thousands of people use the Interstate 5 bridge every day. (Courtesy of Interstate Bridge Replacement Program)
Oregon lawmakers this legislative session are considering allocating $1 billion toward replacing the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington, a project that could represent an opportunity for bipartisan work on an essential piece of infrastructure for the region.
The need to replace the bridge is not under debate: The current bridge is 105 years old, seismically vulnerable, not friendly to pedestrians, public transit or freight traffic and a source of worsening vehicle traffic congestion. Tens of thousands of people use it every day to travel between the two states.
Supporters of replacing the bridge say it would strengthen the physical bond between Portland and Vancouver, improve safety for everyone using the bridge and boost economic growth, both in the I-5 corridor and throughout the two states.
“I really believe that infrastructure is something the full community needs, and we need to figure out how to make infrastructure work for the full community. That means urban and rural,” said Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, co-chair of the Transportation and Interstate 5 Bridge legislative committees.
The project is expected to cost several billion dollars.
Officials have made previous attempts at replacing the aging bridge, most notably through the Columbia River Crossing project from 2005 to 2014. Dogged by accusations of poor coordination and ballooning size, the project faced pushback from lawmakers and a number of interest groups and ultimately failed to receive the necessary billions to start construction.
With the problems identified by the Columbia River Crossing project still unresolved, business leaders, politicians and transportation officials are once again attempting to replace the bridge. The goal is to begin construction by the end of 2025. An environmental evaluation of the new bridge’s current design components — known as Modified Locally Preferred Alternatives — is ongoing.
Included among these high-level designs are:
- Seven improved interchanges on both sides of the river
- A light rail extension from the Portland Expo Center to East Evergreen Boulevard in Vancouver
- One additional auxiliary traffic lane in each direction and safety shoulders
- A number of improvements for pedestrians and bikers
Now, public officials need to figure out how to pay for it.
Last year, the Washington Legislature committed $1 billion to the effort with the expectation that Oregon would soon follow suit. McLain said allocating $1 billion to the project is important not just for Oregon to pay its fair share, but also to demonstrate to the federal government the states are serious about moving the project forward.
McLain said a funding package with details about where the money would come from will be released in a few weeks. The package will likely include a combination of bonding, transportation and transit fees and new variable rate tolling.
“We are looking at what makes the most sense and what is the most financially sound,” she said. “When you do a major project, you are making a commitment to funding for a long time.”
The project also expects to receive billions of dollars from the federal government, though applications for major grants have so far been denied in part because designs were still in early stages.
Making the fundraising challenge more daunting was the recent revelation from the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program that the project’s expected costs have skyrocketed due to inflation, workforce shortages and supply chain disruptions.
In December, the program announced the expected cost for the project could reach $7.5 billion. Two years prior, the price tag topped out at $4.8 billion.
“Construction projects across the country are experiencing unprecedented cost increases … and our program is no exception,” Interstate Bridge Replacement Program administrator Greg Johnson said at the time.
The price tag could drop as the design changes, and some lawmakers already have concerns about the design.
Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said that while he “absolutely believes” the I-5 bridge needs to be replaced, he is concerned that in the initial designs there aren’t more lanes in both directions than the current bridge.
“Granted there is an auxiliary lane on each side, but still, it does not solve the congestion issue and it locks into perpetuity for another 105 years a congestion point,” he said.
Findley also said he would like to see the federal government pay for more of the project considering how vital Interstate 5 and the bridge are to the economies of the region.
There’s also the budget to consider. In November, economists indicated the state’s expected revenues over the next two years will be around $3 billion lower than they were over the last biennium. An updated quarterly forecast will be released in late February.
While Findley acknowledged that fundraising could be a partisan sticking point — particularly if Democrats seek to add fees or taxes or Republicans ask for spending cuts — both parties are aligned on the need for action this session.
“I do not believe it’s a partisan issue, it’s an economic issue,” Findley said.
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