A replacement Interstate 5 Bridge has moved closer to reality, with the Oregon Legislature approving $1 billion in funding.
On Sunday, the final day of the 2023 session, Oregon lawmakers approved $250 million in general obligation bonds for 2023, 2025, 2027 and 2029. That matches the $1 billion investment approved by the Washington Legislature in 2022 and makes the start of construction possible for late 2025 or early 2026.
The development is significant, yet proponents likely are feeling like the proverbial dog that caught the car. What do we do now? And are we sure this is a good idea? After years of public debate and political wrangling, the prospect of an actual bridge can be difficult to process.
While questions remain, replacing a bridge that dates back a century (the first span opened in 1917 and the second in 1958), is indeed a good idea. As a drawbridge, the Columbia River crossing between Washington and Oregon is, literally, the only stoplight along I-5 between Mexico and Canada. It is ill-suited for modern levels of traffic, creating backups on a regular basis. And it is seismically unsound.
For an example of how the metro area’s transportation needs have outgrown its infrastructure, consider this: When the second I-5 span opened, Clark County’s population was approximately 90,000; when the Interstate 205 Bridge opened in 1982, the population was about 200,000. Now, more than 500,000 people reside in Clark County.
That highlights the most important aspect of a proposed replacement for the I-5 Bridge — easing congestion. Through expanded capacity, improved access points and enhanced public transit, a new bridge is essential for the economy of the present and the future.
It also should return focus to the basics of rebuilding a bridge and surrounding freeways. A new bridge that does not effectively improve capacity and access would be a boondoggle. Failing to address I-5 capacity beyond the bridge and eliminating bottlenecks would be pointless. Building another drawbridge that occasionally brings traffic to a standstill would be absurd.
The goal all along has not been to build a new bridge for the sake of having a new bridge. It has been to build a better bridge.
Those details are yet to be worked out. Design options have been presented, but nothing has been finalized. Light rail across the bridge appears likely, but is not certain. Tolls — user fees — also appear likely but are still being discussed.
While those issues have and will continue to generate debate, funding from the Oregon Legislature is a crucial step in the process. Most important, it clears the way for organizers to seek federal funding for the project. Under the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the Interstate 5 Bridge could qualify for up to $2.5 billion in federal money.
Securing funding from both states demonstrates a seriousness that will attract the attention of federal officials. While leaders from Washington and Oregon can talk about the importance of the project, actions speak more loudly, and congressional representatives from both sides of the river should strongly advocate for federal support.
Organizers say the next steps involve applying for federal grants, publishing an environmental impact statement and receiving a permit from the Coast Guard. But for now, there is reason for officials to laud Oregon’s commitment to the project — before getting back to work.