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Funding, reuse of CRC work key issues in Interstate 5 Bridge replacement

Two years into new effort to replace spans, money remains a stumbling block

By , Columbian business reporter
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The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program is overseen by a 16-member bistate legislative committee. The committee's meetings have been on hiatus this year while both states' legislatures were in session, but regular meetings are expected to resume starting later this month. In the meantime, the project office has established an Equity Advisory Group, a Community Advisory Group and an Executive Steering Committee to help gather public input and guide the development process.
The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program is overseen by a 16-member bistate legislative committee. The committee's meetings have been on hiatus this year while both states' legislatures were in session, but regular meetings are expected to resume starting later this month. In the meantime, the project office has established an Equity Advisory Group, a Community Advisory Group and an Executive Steering Committee to help gather public input and guide the development process. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It was funding that killed the Columbia River Crossing. The original Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project was already embroiled in controversy, but the killing blow came when the Washington Senate adjourned without approving the state’s portion of the project funding in 2013.

It comes as no surprise then that, two years into a renewed bistate bridge replacement effort, funding is a hot topic. The issue ties into a pair of big transportation policy discussions underway in Washington state and Washington, D.C.

House and Senate Democrats in the Washington Legislature each put forth 16-year, multibillion-dollar transportation package proposals during this year’s legislative session, and President Joe Biden’s administration is teeing up a $2 trillion federal infrastructure package to pitch to Congress.

Both efforts are seen as potential opportunities to start lining up the billions in state and federal dollars that will be needed if the new I-5 Bridge project — now officially called the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program — is going to succeed where its older sibling failed.

It’s too early in the development process for an official price tag, but the bistate IBR program office released a set of rough estimates in November that showed — assuming construction starts in 2025 — the new bridge would cost between $3.17 billion and $4.25 billion depending on the scope of the project and the type of high-capacity transit included.

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Washington and Oregon would each likely have to kick in between $750 million and $1 billion of that total, according to the project office’s estimates. The remaining funding would need to come from the federal government and bridge tolls.

State funding

Washington appears to be first in line to ante up. The House and Senate versions of the Democrats’ proposed transportation package differ in their total amounts of proposed spending, but both include at least $1 billion for the I-5 Bridge replacement effort.

The Senate version made it out of committee but didn’t get a floor vote before the end of the session. Even so, multiple lawmakers indicated that the proposals are still very much alive and that they would continue to work on aligning them in the coming weeks.

“I’m very confident that there is tremendous momentum for a bigger package that will take us out over the next 16 years,” said Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, who serves on the House Transportation Committee and co-chairs the IBR bistate committee.

There’s even talk of a special session to pass the plan later this year, although that part doesn’t seem quite as guaranteed.

“It’s more important that we get the package right than it is that we meet a specific deadline,” said Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who sits on the Senate Transportation Committee and co-chairs the bistate IBR committee — but she added that the need to spur economic recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic does create a heightened sense of urgency.

Regardless of timing, one thing seems fairly certain: the final version of the package will still include Washington’s chunk of the bridge funding. House Transportation Committee chair Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, indicated earlier this year that he and his colleagues consider the bridge a top priority.

“In the overall proposal, we only identified one specific proposal, and that is the bridge across the Columbia River,” he told KATU News in February. Cleveland added last week that “the probability of it including bridge funding is extremely high.”

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, who also co-chairs the bistate IBR committee, said she wouldn’t vote for the transportation proposal in its current form, citing concerns about the increased taxes and fees included in the legislation, but added that she does want to see Washington fund the bridge.

“I’m a proponent of this (project),” she said. “That’s why I’m at the table.”

IBR program administrator Greg Johnson said the Legislature’s failure to pass the package during session isn’t a setback for the bridge replacement effort because the project is still at a very early stage.

The IBR program’s timeline aims to receive a Record of Decision — the federal green light to start construction — in 2024. That’s when the office would need to have full funding lined up so that it can begin acquiring rights of way and setting up construction contracts.

“The fact that it was being discussed early is fantastic,” Johnson said.

The Legislature did pass a smaller, two-year transportation package that included $28.6 million for the IBR office, so the early project work remains funded.

Oregon doesn’t have an equivalent big transportation package in the works, and Oregon Sen. Lee Beyer, who co-chairs both the bistate IBR committee and the Oregon Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said that bridge funding “has not been a topic in Oregon.”

OPB reported last month that, according to Beyer, Oregon lawmakers want to see what Washington puts forward before making their own commitments, due in part to the way the CRC fell apart — Oregon had already committed its own portion of the funding when Washington pulled out.

“As I have said before, if we come to an agreement, I suspect (no promises) that Oregon will find a way to help fund the project,” Beyer wrote in an email to The Columbian.

Cleveland said Oregon’s desire to see Washington go first is understandable, and other Washington lawmakers noted that the timing is such that the state will probably end up taking the first step either way.

“I think in the natural order of things, Oregon has done a (transportation) package more recently than we have,” Wylie said, “so even if there was an assumption that both states have to be ready with significant funding at the same moment in time, we’re likely to have that commitment in place before they are.”

Federal funding

IBR project staff and local elected officials see the Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal as another potential opportunity for I-5 Bridge funding. The administration’s plan promises to “fix the 10 most economically significant bridges in the country in need of reconstruction,” according to a fact sheet published by the White House in March.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, told OPB last month that he hoped to see the I-5 Bridge included in that top 10 list. Cleveland also said she thought there was a good chance that the plan could include I-5 funding due to the project’s national significance.

On the other hand, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, said the Biden plan is likely moving too fast for the IBR project to jump on board. The administration appears to be aiming for passage within a couple of months, she said, but the IBR program is still years away from arriving at a specific recommended bridge configuration — and federal funding would be a tough sell before then.

But the Biden package isn’t the only shot at federal funding, she added. There will be multiple other sources available if and when the project gets to the appropriate stage of development, such as the Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program and the New Starts grant program for the public transportation component, she said.

“I’ve worked to keep money in these pots, knowing that we’re going to need them at some point,” she said.

The Biden package could still indirectly help by setting aside more money for those programs, she said, although it remains to be seen what the final version of the bill will look like if it makes its way through Congress. The passage of the federal package could also provide additional clarity to Washington state lawmakers as they finalize their own transportation package later this year, Wylie said.

Johnson said his office isn’t ruling out the possibility of securing federal IBR funding through the Biden package, although he acknowledged that “it all depends on the level of readiness they’re looking for.”

He added that his office wants to try to make the I-5 Bridge part of any and all federal-level transportation discussions with the goal of demonstrating that it’s “shovel-worthy” even if it’s not yet shovel-ready.

Development pathways

IBR program activity this year has centered on a trio of groups that have met regularly in recent months — the Community Advisory Group, the Equity Advisory Group and the Executive Steering Committee, which is composed of representatives from regional governments and agencies such as C-Tran.

The groups are tasked with gathering public and stakeholder input to assess how community priorities regarding the bridge have changed in the years since the original project was mothballed, and developing frameworks and screening criteria that will be used to help evaluate the possible bridge configurations and settle on a preferred option for the IBR program.

The groups were originally also tasked with reviewing the CRC’s Purpose and Need statement and Vision and Values statement — documents which lay out the problems the project must address such as congestion, safety and seismic vulnerability — and developing updated versions for the IBR program.

However, Johnson said recent conversations with the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration have made it clear that there isn’t a lot of flexibility to amend the original CRC statements.

Too many changes would result in the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program being treated as a brand-new project, meaning it would have to go through a full development and federal environmental review process without being able to re-use work that was done for the CRC. That outcome would delay the start of construction until at least 2027, Johnson said.

That’s a pathway that several executive steering group members, including Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, said they wanted to avoid. Members of the bistate legislative committee also indicated during meetings last year that, where possible, they wanted to avoid duplicating work from the CRC process.

The program office is still waiting on additional federal clarification, Johnson said, but in the meantime the advisory groups’ recent work has focused on developing separate frameworks for issues that they felt were not sufficiently addressed in the CRC, such as concerns about climate change and project equity.

“We may be very limited in what we can do, but the concerns regarding both climate and equity will be reflected in this process and in this document,” he said. “Those things, we know, are must-haves on the part of the community and our partners.”

The program office’s goal is to arrive at a preferred option by late 2023 or early 2024 — not a complete project design, but a full outline of the chosen bridge configuration including details such as how many lanes the bridge would have, what kind of mass transit it would carry and a plan for tolling.

What happens after that will depend on how the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transportation Administration respond when the IBR program office submits its proposal for evaluation. Johnson outlined the possibilities at the most recent executive steering group meeting.

The simplest outcome would be if the federal agencies determine that IBR’s preferred configuration presents no significant impacts beyond what was already evaluated during the CRC’s environmental review process, giving the project quick approval. At the other end of the spectrum is the full restart pathway — the outcome that most parties involved are keen to avoid.

The two middle scenarios would occur if the agencies determine that the IBR plan is broadly similar to the CRC but presents some new impacts that must be accounted for through a limited- or full-scope Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. That’s the pathway that nearly all of the project players seem to prefer.

The reuse approach does have its detractors. Opponents of the project have pointed to it as a sign that the IBR program’s aim is to — in the words of Portland economist Joe Cortright during a recent steering group meeting — “recycle the failed CRC proposal,” which he decried as an overly broad project that would be tantamount to a regional freeway expansion rather than a strict bridge replacement.

Reusing the CRC’s Purpose and Need statement and aiming for a supplemental EIS will box the project into a pathway that preemptively rules out alternative options to a CRC-style plan, he argued, and runs the risk of seeing the project collapse in the same fashion as its predecessor.