The bistate legislative committee of Oregon and Washington lawmakers overseeing the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program held its first meeting in four months on Friday, reviewing the project office’s progress over the summer.
Friday’s meeting marks the start of a period in which the legislative committee plans to meet monthly, reflecting the rapid pace of planning.
Program administrator Greg Johnson and the IBR staff began the meeting with a presentation similar to the one they gave to the project’s Executive Steering Group on Wednesday, outlining their projected time line, including the goal of settling on a single recommended bridge configuration in early 2022.
The recommended configuration will aim to settle four key issues: the number of lanes on the new bridge, the type of mass transit it will carry, whether it will reuse or replace the harbor bridge that carries Interstate 5 from mainland Oregon to Hayden Island, and whether it will include a full interchange on the island.
The office is still compiling its list of configuration options to put through the review process, but Johnson and deputy program manager John Willis offered an overview of some of the different concepts under consideration.
In terms of the river crossing, for example, the possible concepts include a curved alignment like what was planned for the mothballed Columbia River Crossing project, a straight alignment, or a stacked alignment that would use multiple decks to reduce the bridge’s width, Willis said.
The options for Hayden Island include a full interchange, a partial interchange or no interchange, with the island instead served by a separate connection to mainland Oregon. The team is also examining whether the project would include upgrades to any of the interchanges at Fourth Plain, Mill Plain, downtown Vancouver and Marine Drive, he said, and, if so, what those upgrades could be.
The mass transit modes under consideration are light rail, bus rapid transit and express bus-on-shoulder, Willis said, and the office is also looking at the question of whether a set of dedicated transit lanes should be located near I-5 or in the center of the freeway.
The light rail option could involve extending the MAX Yellow Line from the current Expo Center terminus to Hayden Island and downtown Vancouver, he said, while the bus rapid transit option could mean extending C-Tran’s Vine route to Hayden Island and the Expo Center.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, and Oregon Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, sought assurances that the project office has been communicating with federal agencies like the U.S. Coast Guard and private companies like Thompson Metal Fab in Vancouver to make sure the bridge arrives at a configuration that will be able to secure all necessary permits and won’t present a problem for industrial river traffic.
Some of that discussion focused on the potential height of the new bridge, an issue which became one of the sticking points toward the end of the Columbia River Crossing project. Any river crossing near the current Interstate 5 Bridge will need to be tall enough to leave clearance for river traffic but short enough to remain clear of the airspace reserved for planes approaching Pearson Field and Portland International Airport.
“I would think the Port of Portland is going to be conflicted between needs of PDX and their river partners,” Smith said.
Willis said that the project office is looking at options regarding bridge height, but no decision has been made. It’s an issue the team will need to keep looking at in 2022.
The discussion also touched on some of the constraints placed on the project by its partial re-use of planning work performed for the Columbia River Crossing.
Oregon Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, asked whether the time set aside to review and screen design options would be long enough to arrive at a single recommended choice by January. She noted that big public projects tend to develop a vision and set of goals first, then come up with design options, but in IBR’s case the two development periods overlap.
Johnson replied that the vision and goals phase would normally come first in a new project, but the IBR program is a different scenario. The goal is to get federal approval for a Supplemental Environmental Review, rather than a full environmental review that would replace the Columbia River Crossing’s original record of decision.
“Part of our challenge is that we have a record of decision and there was a great amount of investment that was put into developing previous alternatives and other design options,” Johnson replied. “So there’s a finite universe of how you can cross this river at this location.”
Toward the end of the meeting, Oregon Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, asked a question about how the bridge would impact congestion and commuting times.
Johnson replied that the team has collected traffic data and is in the process of running models. He said that auxiliary lanes – additional lanes beyond the current three through lanes – could help reduce congestion by cutting down on drivers changing lanes, although he added that “building something tremendously bigger and wider doesn’t solve our problem.”