Update: CRC project gets skeptical response in Olympia

Transport officials question impact of traffic outside project area



OLYMPIA — Funding remains up in the air for the Columbia River Crossing, as the state commissioners in charge of finding the money for megaprojects expressed concerns about the project at a meeting Tuesday.

In a session when Nancy Boyd, director for the project, presented the need for the CRC at a Washington State Transportation Commission meeting, Commissioner Richard Ford and Executive Director Reema Griffith said they were concerned about issues on each side of the bridge, rather than the bridge itself.

“The biggest part of this project is to clean up the problems you’ve got on I-5, on either side of the bridge,” said Ford. “If you dropped the new bridge in tomorrow … you’d still have problems on the rest of I-5 on both ends. I think we need more talk about the problems on both ends.”

Griffith noted that freeway traffic can still jam up as southbound traffic reaches downtown Portland, and expressed concern how that would affect a motorist’s sense of value in paying a toll to get across the bridge only to hit traffic once the bridge is behind them.

The comments came as Boyd briefed the commission on the need for the Columbia River Crossing, a $3.1 billion to $3.5 billion bridge, highway and light-rail project on Interstate 5.

“What we’ll see over the next 20 years, without the project, is that high-peak period will expand so that will mean an even more frequent number of crashes and congestion expanding to about 15 hours,” Boyd said. With that increased congestion, the number of crashes is expected to increase from 400 per year to 750 in 2030.

According to a CRC traffic technical report, there are six hours of congestion daily on the existing I-5 bridge. The report projects that number to more than double by 2030 if they do not build, although critics have noted that the traffic modeling for the project is flawed and overinflated. With the new crossing in place, the report estimates the number of congestion hours to drop to as low as 3.5 hours per day.

A percentage of that traffic is freight, which Boyd addressed as a key issue for the area, with 130,000 jobs dependent on trade in the metropolitan area.

“We’re more heavily dependent on trade than similarly sized cities in the region,” Boyd said. “There’s $40 billion worth of freight crossing I-5 each year, and $71 billion in freight is expected to cross the bridge by 2030.”

Commission members are appointed by the governor from a pool of applicants with varied backgrounds from across the state.

Philip Parker, the commissioner from Clark County, was more concerned with what he considered the centerpiece issue: the seismic stability of the current bridge.

“If there is a seismic event it literally will drop into the river,” he said, encouraging the commissioners to prioritize issues.

“These bridges were built in 1917 and 1958, of course they don’t meet our current seismic safety standards,” Boyd said. The bridges’ foundations are on wooden pilings that do not reach solid rock. “Of course this is a major risk. One that we need to address.”

According to Boyd, the financing plan for the project is still under way, with multiple options being discussed to finance the project. Funding is expected to be split into thirds from federal, state and local levels.

Estimates call for $450 million from each state, $800 million to $1.1 billion in toll revenue, and $850 million from the federal government, Boyd said. While some funding from the Federal Highway Administration remains uncertain, she anticipates the project will receive sufficient federal funds.

“We expect that if there’s any federal transportation funding this project will compete very well for that,” Boyd said. “This is an ongoing process, we’re watching what’s happening at federal and state levels and being able to make adjustments to our finance plan.”

The details of how tolls would be managed between the two states will be worked out over the next year, Boyd said. That includes the option of pre-completion tolling, which could generate as much as $200 million by tolling the existing bridge, according to Boyd.

“Whether or not we choose to do that is still up in the air. It’s just one of the ways to put the pieces together,” Boyd said.

A record of decision is expected on the Final Environmental Impact Statement in December, which will allow the project to continue on its timeline to complete design, begin property acquisition in 2012 and break ground in 2013.