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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Washington’s U.S. Sens. Murray, Cantwell get up-close look at I-5 Bridge maintenance

They say momentum in favor of replacement project

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 3, 2024, 6:57pm
6 Photos
Marc Gross has given countless tours of the Interstate 5 Bridge during his more than two decades as bridge supervisor. Gross said a tour favorite is seeing the gunk that is used to grease the 6&frac12; miles of cable.
Marc Gross has given countless tours of the Interstate 5 Bridge during his more than two decades as bridge supervisor. Gross said a tour favorite is seeing the gunk that is used to grease the 6½ miles of cable. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell on Wednesday saw up close what it takes to keep the century-old Interstate 5 drawbridge working.

The Democratic senators visited Vancouver to tout the $600 million federal grant they helped secure to replace the aging bridge.

Murray winced and Cantwell cracked a slight smile as Marc Gross, the Interstate 5 Bridge supervisor, reached into a bucket and pulled out a glob of grease.

“This is what’s saving this bridge,” Cantwell said.

The grease, which costs $450 a barrel, is used annually to coat the 6½ miles of cables that lift the Interstate 5 Bridge. Extra buckets of grease are kept on standby in the machine rooms atop the lift span trusses for spot treatment — or for show-and-tell during bridge tours.

As the senators climbed to the top of the bridge, the stairs vibrated with passing traffic. When an especially heavy truck passed underneath, the bridge shook ferociously.

Ever since Murray took office in 1993 and Cantwell in 2001, officials have been talking about replacing the bridge. Now, it seems closer than ever.

With replacement program officials’ goal of breaking ground on a new bridge by late 2025 or early ’26, Wednesday could have been one of the last times either senator is on the bridge. In reflection, Murray recalled discussions about replacing the bridge started more than 30 years ago with Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield.

“(Hatfield) asked me to come down here and said, ‘We’ve got to replace this bridge,’ ” Murray said. “(And that was) the mid-1990s, and we’ve had ups and downs and ins and outs (since then).”

In the years since, Murray and Cantwell have lobbied for a replacement bridge in both Washingtons. In an interview with The Columbian Editorial Board, Murray said she’s noticed a change in attitude since the Columbia River Crossing, the prior bridge replacement effort, was killed in the Washington Senate in 2013.

“I feel like those arguments now are more about ‘let’s make a decision’ rather than ‘let’s do everything we can to stop it,’ ” Murray said.

The $600 million came from the Mega Grant Program, a relatively new stream of funding passed as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. As chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Cantwell authored the Mega Grant Program. As assistant majority leader and chair of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Murray helped negotiate and pass the bipartisan law and fund the Mega Grant program.

“We always ate up all the money and then never got anything done, so we created a program just to fix big mega projects,” Cantwell said.

Next steps

In addition to the Mega Grant, replacement program officials have applied for $1.5 billion from the Federal Highway Administration’s Bridge Investment Program, also created as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law. Greg Johnson, the replacement program administrator, expects to hear about the grant in the spring.

“I think we have a very good case and they’ve already said, ‘We like this project,’ so my sense is that we will get money,” Cantwell said.

An updated cost estimate is expected this summer. Johnson said it’s likely to increase from the original estimate of $5 billion to $7.5 billion. Johnson said inflation is to blame.

Cantwell alluded that President Joe Biden may visit the bridge.

“You might have seen that the president went with Mitch McConnell and our colleagues from Ohio and stood in front of a bridge in Kentucky, and then he went with Chuck Schumer up in New York on that bridge project,” Cantwell said. “But this bridge project gets a lot more money.”

11 Photos
Sen. Patty Murray, left, is seen through the steps of a ladder as she climbs to the east machine room during a tour of the Interstate Bridge on Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 3, 2024.
Sen. Murray and Sen. Cantwell tour Interstate Bridge Photo Gallery
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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.