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Thursday, June 1, 2023
June 1, 2023

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Oregon Interstate 5 Bridge bills face delay

Transportation co-chair says funding approval to still happen this session

By , Columbian staff writer

The Oregon Legislature’s Joint Committee On Transportation ended its final meeting to advance bills on Thursday without moving the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement policy bill to the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

This does not mean Oregon won’t fund the replacement project this session, but it does mean the $1 billion bridge funding plan will have to be passed through different means.

Rep. Susan McLain, D-Hillsboro, the co-chair of the Joint Committee on Transportation, said she is confident the funding will still go through this session.

“We’re committed to getting this work done by the end of the session,” McLain said. “The replacement of the bridge is not a question. It’s just how we are going forward and making sure we can get it done.”

McLain blamed the delay on members out due to medical reasons and a Senate Republican walkout, which proved problematic timing with a handful of amendments in consideration.

“It was an inopportune time,” McLain said. “There’s a lot of differences between the amendments, and we wanted to make sure we had everyone there, a full compliment on both sides, so we could have a thorough conversation to make sure we got to where we wanted to be.”

The amendments

Originally a bill about speed bump height and markings, the proposed amendments replace the bill’s original text — in a legislative maneuver known as a “gut and stuff.”

The amendment requested by the committee’s co-chairs and co-vice chairs states the legislative intent to provide $1 billion to the project over the next four biennia through the issuance of general obligation bonds, sets a cost cap at $6.3 billion for the bridge replacement project and reiterates legislative intent to also fully fund the I-5 Rose Quarter project during the 2024 and 2025 legislative sessions.

When asked at a Joint Committee on Transportation meeting about what guardrails would prevent the program from surpassing $6.3 billion, Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Strickler said that the number would be managed by DOT and through the bi-annual budget process.

Another amendment, requested by Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, also states the legislative intent to fund the project over the next four biennia, but it commits $250 million in general obligation bonds and $750 million in highway user tax bonds, instead of $300 million and $700 million.

Pham’s proposed amendment also prohibits construction on the three north and two south interchanges until the two state treasurers agree that the bridge and transit components are substantially complete and that the project will be completed within budget.

Washington and Oregon interchanges, roadway and a shared use path are estimated to cost between about $2 billion and $3 billion in total.

“We need to ensure that any financial commitment from the state comes with mechanisms allowing the Legislature to provide oversight to prevent the project from out of control growth of scope or costs,” Pham said in a statement.

“ODOT has a history of significant cost overruns, and if we want to ensure success with this bridge replacement, we need fiscal guardrails, greater transparency and accountability from the agency,” Pham continued.

Other amendments offered include adjusting the $6.3 billion cap for inflation and prohibiting the Oregon Transportation Commission from assessing tolls on I-5, except on the I-5 Bridge, and on most of Interstate 205.

The Oregon legislatures face two deadlines: the end of the legislative session on June 25 and the opening of the Department of Transportation’s Mega Grant Program this spring. The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program anticipates receiving $2.5 billion from three federal grants. A financial commitment from both states is a near prerequisite for federal funding.

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