Monday, March 27, 2023
March 27, 2023

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In Our View: I-5 Bridge replacement price tag grows with time

The Columbian

For anybody who has sticker shock from the expected cost of a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge, Greg Johnson offers some words of wisdom.

“This is what happens when projects get delayed,” the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program administrator says. “They don’t become cheaper … if we continue to delay, if we continue to just talk about it and not do it, then we will see more cost increases as we go forward.”

Planners last week released the estimated costs of a new bridge, pegging the total between $5.5 billion and $7.5 billion; the most likely price tag falls right in the middle at $6 billion. Meanwhile it is not overly cynical to suggest that major construction projects often exceed even the most careful estimates.

Regardless of how much the residents of Washington and Oregon, along with the federal government, cobble together for a new bridge, the cost is likely to greatly exceed estimates for the defunct Columbia River Crossing.

When that project was scuttled by the Washington Legislature in 2013, the latest estimate was a cost of $2.8 billion. Earlier projections had predicted a price tag of $3.5 billion, and critics predicted even higher costs. But for the purposes of this discussion, we will stick with the official $2.8 billion calculation.

That $2.8 billion in 2013 dollars would be $3.58 billion in 2022 dollars, according to In other words, delaying the project by nearly 10 years has cost taxpayers an additional $2.5 billion and given us an extra decade of sitting in traffic.

For that we can thank — or curse — state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and former Sen. Don Benton. They led the opposition during an ultimately failed special legislative session, killing Washington’s proposed $450 million contribution to the Columbia River Crossing project and tossing the project on the trash heap.

At the time, Rivers said, “It’s almost been like a timeshare sales pitch: ‘If you don’t buy now, by God, you’ll never be able to get it at this price!’ We need some sanity on this.”

Now the price is $6 billion, raising questions of where Rivers’ sanity was hiding a decade ago.

As Tim Leavitt, then the mayor of Vancouver, said at the time: “Historians will look back on this project and write of fringe personal ideologies and political expediency taking precedence over good public policy, public safety and investment in your future.”

Indeed, the project must be viewed as an investment, and investments become more expensive the longer you delay. It is more prudent, for example, to begin saving for retirement in your 20s rather than waiting until your 50s. And it is more prudent to move forward on a bridge now rather than worrying about exponential cost increases in the future.

As Johnson noted last week: “Construction projects across the country are experiencing unprecedented cost increases due to supply chain issues and increasing material and labor costs as well as other factors, and our program is no exception.”

Officials have identified roughly $6 billion in potential funding for the new project. That includes $2 billion from Washington and Oregon (the Washington Legislature already has committed to the funding), up to $1.6 billion from tolling and up to $2.7 billion in federal grants.

Discussion about the proposal is necessary; tolling, in particular, will draw opposition that must be heard. But in the process, Clark County residents must remember that as we talk, the meter is running.