A group of legislators from Washington and Oregon convened virtually Friday morning for the first bistate legislative committee meeting on the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement since December.
The group’s last meeting occurred following the replacement program’s updated cost estimate of $5.5 billion to $7.5 billion, with the likeliest outcome being $6 billion. A lot has happened since then.
The program did not receive a $750 million federal grant (officials plan to reapply later this year). Officials announced they would also study a moveable-span option and released visualizations of what a replacement bridge may look like. Washington authorized tolling on the bridge, matching Oregon, and the Oregon Legislature allotted $1 billion to the replacement, matching Washington.
The replacement program is at roughly 10 percent design and should be at 15-17 percent design by the end of the year, program Administrator Greg Johnson said.
“We still are on schedule,” Johnson said, noting that every day the program is delayed will cost $850,000 in 2034-35.
Friday’s meeting updated the group on the events of the past seven months and looked ahead at the next steps.
Permitting and the Coast Guard
Discussions between the bridge replacement team and upstream manufacturers that would be impacted by a new span with 116 feet of vertical clearance — less than the 178 feet of vertical clearance that the current bridge allows — are ongoing.
To refresh: The U.S. Coast Guard, which has authority over the Columbia River and other navigable waterways, essentially has veto power over the bridge replacement project: No permit, no bridge.
In the Coast Guard’s preliminary determination in June 2022, it said a replacement bridge should have at least 178 feet of vertical clearance, the same as the current bridge, because of the upstream manufacturers that require more than 116 feet of vertical clearance.
The failed Columbia River Crossing project, which effectively died in 2013 due to political infighting, received a permit after agreeing to pay the affected companies a combined $86.4 million to mitigate for the impacts of a replacement bridge.
“If we are able to reach an agreement with (the impacted users), which I’m confident we will, we can take those agreements to the Coast Guard and show that there are no more users requesting more than 116 feet,” Assistant Program Administrator Ray Mabey said.
“That will allow (the Coast Guard) to update (its) determination and put us on a glide path for a bridge permit at 116 feet,” he added.
One wrinkle: In the Coast Guard’s preliminary determination, the agency pointed to the trend of vessels requiring more than 160 feet of vertical clearance docking in Portland and said that the trend is likely to continue east of the I-5 Bridge.
The Coast Guard cited the MV Navios Unite, a container ship that transited to Portland in March 2022 with a vertical clearance of approximately 166 feet, and the Caribbean Princess cruise ship that arrived in the spring of 2022 with a vertical clearance of about 183 feet.
Neither ship went under the I-5 Bridge, however.
When asked how much the current replacement program could pay the impacted users, Mabey declined to give an exact number, citing the ongoing negotiation, but said it will be much less than the difference between the cost of a movable-span bridge and a fixed span.
The replacement program released its first batch of visualizations of six replacement bridge options — four single-level bridges, one stacked bridge and one with a lift span — in late May.
The most popular options have been the two with cables, Johnson said.
The extradosed and finback designs have cables, although they are behind a concrete container on the finback design. An extradosed or finback bridge would likely cost slightly more than other single-level options, but not by a significant amount, Johnson said.
On all the single-level configurations, light rail will be on the southbound span — on the side of downtown Vancouver — and the bike-pedestrian path on the northbound span — in the direction of Who Song & Larry’s.
Tolling on the current I-5 Bridge is expected to start in 2026, with daytime rates of between $2.05 and $3.55 per trip being studied by the replacement program. Some tolling scenarios increase by 2.15 percent annually to keep pace with general price inflation.
The final decision on the start date will be set by a bistate agreement and the rate by the Oregon and Washington transportation commissions.
If tolls are reinstated, it will be the third time travelers will need to pay to cross the 106-year-old bridge. Unlike in the past, however, tolls won’t be a relative blip lasting for a few years or a decade but could be in place until the 2060s.
Program officials anticipate that while the current I-5 Bridge is tolled, it will be toll-free between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., in an attempt to avoid situations where drivers would pay a toll and experience a construction delay.
Officials are looking at nighttime rates on the replacement bridge of between $1.50 and $2.15 per trip.
Tolling is expected to generate $1.2 billion of the bridge replacement program’s estimated cost of $6 billion, with state and federal funds making up the rest.
The replacement program is working on a level two toll traffic and revenue study, which is expected to be completed by early 2024. The study tests multiple toll rate scenarios and how they affect travel demand and revenue.
An investment-grade traffic and revenue study will be conducted after the level two study and will analyze the impacts of one or a few toll rate scenarios, which will help the transportation commissions pick an exact toll rate, Mabey said.
Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, stressed the importance of an investment-grade analysis before bonds are issued.
“It’s so important to have it before we commit ourselves to major financial obligations, which has impacts on our ability to fund other transportation needs across the state,” Pham said.
Up next for the program are applying for three federal grants that program officials anticipate contributing $2.5 billion and finishing the draft supplemental environmental impact statement, which evaluates the benefits and impacts of the plan, by late 2023.
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