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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Bipartisan group of Washington lawmakers tours I-5 Bridge

Program administrator: It’s important for people to see urgency of project

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 29, 2023, 7:11pm
4 Photos
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers tours the Interstate 5 Bridge on Thursday. With many critical transportation projects in the state, developing the transportation budget is as much an art as it is a science, said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, second from left, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee.
A bipartisan group of state lawmakers tours the Interstate 5 Bridge on Thursday. With many critical transportation projects in the state, developing the transportation budget is as much an art as it is a science, said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, second from left, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A bipartisan group of state lawmakers visited the Interstate 5 Bridge on their final leg of a three-day tour of Southwest Washington bridges.

Although the I-5 Bridge is unique in terms of its national importance, it is one of many of the region’s bridges in need of replacement or repair.

Efforts are underway to replace the Hood River-White Salmon Bridge, and the I-5 East Fork Lewis River Bridge is tagged for replacement beginning in spring 2025. The I-5 North Fork Lewis River Bridge is currently being repaired. The Lewis and Clark Bridge was closed to non-emergency vehicle traffic for a few days in July to replace two expansion joints and a fractured floor beam.

With critical transportation projects around the state, giving lawmakers a look behind the scenes of the 106-year-old northbound span and 65-year-old southbound span of the I-5 Bridge is important to continue to highlight the project’s urgency, said Greg Johnson, the bridge replacement program administrator.

“We see a tremendous amount of value in getting people out to see the conditions of the existing bridge but also to understand … the tight window that we’re trying to fit all of this new infrastructure,” Johnson said.

Both Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, the chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, and Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, the ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, said the machine room — which sits above traffic on either span and houses the cables and motors that ultimately lift the bridge — was the highlight of the tour.

“It was pretty amazing to be able to go out and look at the machinery and see the age of it and also how it works — a little scary, too,” Barkis said.

Liias noted how much the machine room moves, especially when large trucks pass underneath.

“What’s going to happen during a seismic event?” Liias said. “It really does underscore that it was best in class 100 years ago, but it’s time for us to do even better now.”

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Balancing act

Secretary of Transportation Roger Millar told the Washington State Standard in May that he thinks lawmakers put too much money into financing new projects and not enough into upkeep.

The two-year, $13.4 billion transportation budget included $700 million each year for highway maintenance and preservation — about $300 million less than Millar has estimated is needed.

Liias said developing the transportation budget is as much an art as it is a science.

“We have to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to both fix what we’ve got and also plan for the future,” Liias said. “For folks that are in the executive branch, asking for money is easier than those of us that have to ask our constituents to pay more.

“Ultimately, as costs have gone up for families, we have to be cautious about how much we’re asking folks that are really being stressed to pay,” Liias added. “How can we have government be efficient and effective to make sure we’re stretching that dollar as far as they can go so when we come to the public and say we need a little bit more, we have the credibility that we’ve managed the resources well?”

Barkis said it’s critical to focus on the region’s other bridges, too.

“We’re going to address every one of those bridges over the course of time,” Barkis said. “You can’t just focus on here. We’ve got the Hood River Bridge, Bridge of the Gods, Lewis and Clark Bridge. They’re all going to need to be addressed at some point.”

The Hood River-White Salmon Bridge replacement project is seeking a total of $125 million from both states. So far, Washington has allotted $80 million and Oregon $30 million. The Oregon Legislature considered funding the Bridge of the Gods seismic upgrade last session but ultimately did not. If it had been funded, legislators hoped it would trigger a match from the Evergreen State, according to Willamette Week.

Next steps

The heaviest lifting for the state Legislature in replacing the I-5 Bridge is behind it, after committing $1 billion in 2022 to replace the bridge and approving tolling on the bridge earlier this year. Oregon matched that commitment earlier this year and previously approved tolling.

The replacement project is expected to cost between $5 billion and $7.5 billion, with the likeliest outcome being about $6 billion: $2 billion from the states, $1.24 billion from tolling and $2.5 billion in federal grants, in addition to $200 million in existing state funds.

Tolling on the current 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.

The final decision on the start date will be set by a bistate agreement, and the rate will be set by the Oregon and Washington transportation commissions.

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.

The replacement bridge is expected to be tolled around the clock, with program officials studying nighttime rates of between $1.50 and $2.15 per trip.

The bridge’s final configuration — whether it will be stacked, like the Fremont Bridge; side by side, like the I-205 Bridge; or a lift span, like the current I-5 Bridge — has yet to be decided. In May, the replacement program released its first batch of visualizations of what the various configurations could look like.

Construction is targeted to start in late 2025 or early 2026.

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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.

Columbian staff writer