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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Oregon’s share of Interstate 5 Bridge replacement funding advances to House, Senate

Joint Committee on Ways and Means sends budget bill with bridge funds to floor of both chambers

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 20, 2023, 1:14pm

Nearly 20 years in the making, a replacement Interstate 5 Bridge is now within sight.

Washington has allocated $1 billion, the eight local partner agencies are on board with the replacement program’s tentative plan and, now, the Oregon Legislature looks poised to fund the project after the Joint Committee on Ways and Means sent a budget bill containing bridge funds to the floor of both chambers on Tuesday.

“If you are in my job, you never are done until you’re done,” said Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, one of the legislators spearheading the funding effort in Oregon. “But we step forward today with a vote of confidence out of Ways and Means.”

The funding comes from Amendment 1 of House Bill 5005, a budget bill also funding seismic rehabilitation of schools and emergency services facilities and housing programs. The bill allots about $250 million in general obligation bonds on the bridge replacement project in 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029.

“We are encouraged by the commitment of Oregon legislators to fund Oregon’s share of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, and we stand ready to support these efforts as legislative conversations continue,” said Greg Johnson, the replacement program’s administrator.

Originally planned to be funded via $300 million in general obligation bonds and $700 million in highway user tax revenue and passed through the Joint Committee on Transportation, the Legislature pivoted due to the Republican senators’ walkout and sick committee members.

Republican senators struck a deal with the Democrats on June 15, ending the six-week walkout with 10 days left in the session. By then, bills could no longer be advanced from the transportation committee and had to have a different origin: the Joint Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Capital Construction.

The bill

Although the amendment relies on general obligation bonds to fund Oregon’s portion of the bridge replacement, not all of the legislators intend for that to be the primary source of funding in the future.

House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, said at the subcommittee meeting on Tuesday morning that the Oregon Department of Transportation will need a future transportation budget, allowing the Legislature to revisit the funding timeline and sources.

Still, it left some legislators feeling uneasy.

Khan Pham, D-Portland, a proponent of a bridge replacement project with a smaller footprint, raised concerns about 100 percent of Oregon’s share coming from general obligation bonds.

“I’m glad that we are appropriating $250 million this biennium so that we can get in line for federal funding,” Pham said. “That’s really key so we can be competitive.”

“I am concerned, however, that the funding for the next three bienniums, to 2029, all comes from general fund-supported bonding,” Pham continued. “These are the bonds that we use to fund affordable housing projects, school infrastructure, to repair water systems with lead in them. These are scarce bonding resources that we need for housing, education and health care.”

In April, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek expressed a similar concern to Pham.

“I am uncomfortable with the current conversation of a billion dollars over the next four biennia in obligation bonding,” Kotek said at the time. “I think there needs to be some general obligation bonding this session to move forward on our commitment on the bridge.”

In a statement, Kotek’s press secretary, Anca Matica, said that Kotek looks forward to continuing the conversation over the best funding sources for the project.

“The governor is pleased that the Legislature was able to get funding for the I-5 Bridge project across the finish line in time for critical federal grant opportunities,” said Matica. “Over future biennia, she looks forward to continued conversations with the Legislature on the best funding sources for the project.”

Part of the reason Oregon’s portion of the bridge replacement is funded entirely on general obligation bonds is so the highway user fees — originally planned to account for $700 million of Oregon’s $1 billion — can be spent on road and bridge maintenance, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, the co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said at the subcommittee meeting.

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Grants

Although construction isn’t scheduled to start until 2025 at the earliest, a down payment from both states is essential to leverage an anticipated $2.5 billion in federal funding, although it could be “significantly more” given what other similar-sized projects received earlier this year, Johnson told The Columbian in May.

The replacement program anticipates receiving $1.5 billion combined from the Federal Highway Administration’s Bridge Investment Program and the U.S. Department of Transportation Mega Grant and $1 billion from the Federal Transit Agency’s transit oriented Capital Investment Grants Program.

“The $1.5 billion that we were initially looking at was pre-knowing what Brent Spence (Bridge Corridor Project) and the Golden Gate (Suspension Bridge Seismic Retrofit) received,” Johnson said. “We’re talking to those folks to help shape what our request will look like, so it may be significantly more; but then again, we want to make sure we’re in alignment with senatorial and congressional offices that helped craft this bill to make sure we’re meeting their expectations of the ask that we’re making.”

The program applied and did not receive a previous $750 million grant from the Bridge Investment Program in large part because it did not yet have a financial commitment from Oregon.

The project is estimated at $6 billion, with a range of between $5 million and $7.5 billion. The biggest chunk of the estimated price tag is the bridge replacement itself, anticipated to be between $1.64 billion and $2.45 billion.

The remaining money will be spent on transit investments, scheduled to cost between $1.32 billion and $1.99 billion; on Oregon and Washington interchanges, roadways and shared use path, estimated at $1.05 billion to $1.57 billion for work in Oregon and $990 million to $1.49 billion for work in Washington.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer