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News / Business / Clark County Business

I-5 Bridge panel considers grants

Several federal options on the table from recent infrastructure bill

By Will Campbell, Columbian Associate Editor
Published: November 19, 2021, 6:01am

The Interstate Bridge Replacement program is assessing grant options from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Joe Biden on Monday.

The program, called the IBR, is also looking at tolling options, and although there’s lots of research and studies to be done and no decisions have been made, a variable pricing model that changes price throughout the day appears to be the front-runner in options.

On Thursday, members of the program’s Executive Steering Group heard an update on the IBR’s progress, which is still in early stages. Members of the group include Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, Port of Vancouver CEO Julianna Marler and other Washington and Oregon transportation and government officials.

The three grant options from the federal infrastructure bill include the $15.8 billion Competitive Bridge Investment Program, the $10 billion National Infrastructure Project Assistance Program and the $23 billion FTA Capital Investment Grant New Starts Program.

The IBR must accomplish a few things before applying for the grants: reaching consensus on the project’s “defined solution,” or the details of the bridge, and getting other funding lined up.

Getting to the “defined solution” is a tricky process with many agencies’ hands in the project and the history of opposition, said Frank Green, assistant program administrator for the IBR.

The IBR is now seeking public input on the project and preparing more studies for the project so overlapping governments can agree on how the bridge should operate and look.

The IBR is assessing what grants to apply for and how much it will request. Federal grant money is typically distributed after all other funding options are explored, so the IBR is waiting for Washington and Oregon legislators to allocate more money.

The IBR is also assessing how much tolls will bring to the funding.

The new Interstate 5 Bridge will likely have some form of variable tolling, which means changing the toll price depending on the time of the day, a common practice for Oregon and other similar bridge projects. The now-defunct Columbia River Crossing project also sought variable tolling.

The IBR will conduct multiple toll traffic and revenue studies beginning in summer 2022 to find out how tolling will impact people and how much money it can get for the project.

The group will also look into discounts for low-income drivers once more equity work is done with the toll studies.

Rates for tolls won’t be considered until the project is much closer to completion, Green said.

The next IBR meeting is 10 a.m. Dec. 16. Reports include an economic impact analysis and design options.

Oregon funding

Also on Thursday, members of the Oregon representatives in the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation voted to allocate an additional $36 million from Oregon state funding for replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge. Oregon had already allocated and authorized $9 million.

The additional $36 million advances the project to the “preliminary engineering phase,” a Federal Highway Administration term that marks the project’s step toward establishing the rights of way, working with communities to identify program needs, launching environmental work and narrowing the design of the future bridge.

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The next steps involve a final design phase, which was reached by the Columbia River Crossing program before it failed in 2013.

The IBR program is “trying to reutilize the work from that as much as we can,” said Green. Reusing work from the 2013 project was a directive of legislators to save resources.

“We know things have changed since then,” he said. “That’s the focus right now.”