Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has signaled his interest in restarting efforts to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge by including funding to reopen an office for the project in his proposed budget.
On Thursday, Inslee released his $54.4 billion two-year operating budget, days after Oregon and Washington lawmakers held a landmark meeting to discuss replacing the aging bridge. Included in a summary of Inslee’s budget proposals is a line that calls for $17.5 million to be directed for an “Interstate 5/Columbia River Bridge project office.” The funding will cover the years 2019 through 2021 and was included in a section for “congestion relief.”
“Replacing the I-5 Bridge over the Columbia River remains a high priority for the governor and the state of Washington,” Tara Lee, a spokeswoman for Inslee, said in an email. “It’s a major seismic risk and a traffic bottleneck for the region and the entire nation.”
The Columbia River Crossing, the previous $3 billion replacement for the I-5 Bridge, had a downtown Vancouver project office that was closed in 2014 after political and financial support for the proposal evaporated.
Lee said that the new project office will reevaluate the purpose and need of the project, as well as permits, financing, budget and schedule. It will also reengage key stakeholders with the aim of a “reinvigorated bistate effort that moves this critical project forward,” according to Lee.
She also said that the project “will include light rail and may be partially funded with tolls.”
The governor’s expectation for light rail and tolls seemed to contradict a key message at a meeting of Oregon and Washington lawmakers held earlier this week. On Tuesday, a committee created by the Washington Legislature to look into replacing the bridge held its first meeting with Oregon legislators, who have been leery of restarting talks.
During the meeting, Washington lawmakers stressed that there is no preconceived project and that the committee was focused on the process for creating a replacement bridge. Lee did not respond to a follow-up email requesting additional comment on light rail and tolling plans.
Since the Columbia River Crossing met its demise in the Washington Senate five years ago, Clark County’s legislative delegation has come together around the need to revive the process to replace the bridge. Part of the opposition to the previous project stemmed from its inclusion of light rail and the possibility of tolling. “It concerns me that people may overact to that,” state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said of the governor’s inclusion of light rail and tolls. “Because I’m confident that those of us who have spent the last three years to build trust and good communication are honest brokers and are maintaining openness about this.”
Wylie added that everything is on the table for the replacement bridge. But she said that whatever type of transit (which is required for federal funding) is included in the bridge will depend on further study. She said that light rail won’t be included without a broad consensus for it.
Nevertheless, Wylie said that the governor’s support of funding for the project would help advance it in the Legislature, which convenes next month and will produce its own budget proposals. Wylie said that she will serve as first vice chair on the House Transportation Committee that and there has been an ongoing conversation with leadership in both chambers about the project.
State Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver, responded with a text welcoming the news. Other Clark County leaders also applauded the governor’s support.
“This move makes it clear that Governor Inslee sees the importance of advancing infrastructure solutions along the Interstate 5 corridor through Clark County,” Max Ault, interim president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, said in a statement. “This investment is a critical step to continue growing Washington’s economy and strengthen Clark County’s competitive advantage at a national and global scale.”
The press release also included supportive statements from Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle; Tim Schauer, president of MacKay & Sposito; Kevin Tapani, vice president and chief financial officer of Tapani Inc. as well as others.
Nikki Fisher, press secretary for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, said in a statement that Inslee has reached out for preliminary conversations on how “to improve this vital piece of infrastructure for our two states.”
“This century-old structure needs to be replaced if we are to preserve the metro region’s quality of life and the economy of the Northwest,” read the statement. “Working together presents an opportunity to relieve congestion and lower the carbon footprint while also improving seismic safety and public transit for Oregonians and Washingtonians.”
Lee, from Inslee’s office, said that both sides are discussing the issue of Oregon’s contributions and that nothing has been settled.
State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, said it was Washington’s responsibility to first demonstrate its strong commitment to a new bridge to bring Oregon to the table. She said she sees the funding proposed by the governor as a demonstration of that commitment. She said she doesn’t expect to see anything from the Oregon Legislature until they discuss their next steps when they convene their legislative session next month.
She said she was encouraged by the meeting with Oregon lawmakers earlier this week to discuss the bridge and expects them to continue to participate.
“We need to give them the benefit of time to determine what that looks like,” she said.