Federal cash means momentum — but not certainty — for Interstate 5 bridge talks

By Sam Stites (OPB)
Jan. 21, 2022 7:17 p.m. Updated: Jan. 25, 2022 10:42 p.m.

Renewed effort to replace the aging bridge will depend on several government entities’ ability to compromise and seize the moment.

The Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River is more than 100 years old.

The Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River is more than 100 years old.

Colin Fogarty / Northwest News Network


Eight years after the failure of the Columbia River Crossing project, key players in the discussion to replace a bridge with regional and international significance are still trying to answer two critical questions: Who pays for it? And will it include public transit?

Earlier this month, Metro council members approved funneling $36 million toward the renewed effort to replace the Interstate 5 bridge spanning the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver.

The project was resurrected three years ago by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown due to mounting concern over safety and congestion.

Despite approving use of half the initial cash to kick off the first stages of the revived project as the “Interstate Bridge Replacement,” Metro is just one of several different government entities involved. The project will eventually require input and a thumbs up from lawmakers and transportation leaders from Oregon and Washington, Vancouver and Portland city leaders, and a handful of federal agencies.

Leaders at Metro — as with the other potential partners — have a long list of questions they need to be answered before OK’ing whatever design concept engineers recommend.

Project leaders hope to have the answers by June when evaluation the all options is expected to conclude. That is also when the two states expect to have some clarity on what piece of more than $40 billion President Joe Biden has set aside for bridge infrastructure will be available.

It’s a short window, but confidence is high despite the inability to reach a consensus just eight years ago.

“We’re at a critical stage,” said Greg Johnson, the Interstate Bridge Replacement program administrator. “These next six months we’ll be running models, taking data and looking at what this is going to mean for the outcome of this project.”

A new leader

Johnson was hired in the summer of 2020 by the transportation departments of both states to lead the rejuvenated bridge talks

He comes to the Pacific Northwest with experience working on big projects with multiple stakeholders, most notably the Gordie Howe International Bridge project spanning the Detroit River between the United States and Canada.

He expects the Interstate Bridge Replacement will pose similar challenges.

In 2019, more than 143,000 vehicles crossed the bridge daily, according to ODOT and WSDOT. Around 10% of those were freight trucks.

The bridge provides direct connections for freight accessing both the Port of Portland and Port of Vancouver on either side of the Columbia River. An estimated $71 million worth of cargo crosses the bridge each day, and freight tonnage is expected to double by the year 2040.

The Interstate Bridge is continually identified as one of the worst bottlenecks in the region, with congestion present between seven to 10 hours per day. Nationally, the bridge ranked 23rd on a list of the American Transportation Research Institute’s worst bottlenecks in 2021.

“This is probably a once-in-a-generation opportunity,” Johnson said. “We have a national infrastructure package before us that we have not seen this type of increase since 1993. We’re going to be aggressively going after all of those dollars.”

Johnson said he expects the $45 million allocated by the transportation commission — which includes the $36 million approved earlier this month by Metro, the regional government that oversees land use in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties — and another $35 million from the Washington legislature to cover most of the planning and engineering legwork to clear up questions to help policymakers make a decision this summer.

Among those questions: How many lanes should a new bridge include? Is bus rapid transit or light rail the way of the future? Will the I-5 Hayden Island and Marine Drive interchanges on Oregon’s side remain or be shifted somehow? How will the bridge fit into Washington’s side where downtown Vancouver is largely built out?

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson said she believes the most important thing that will come out of this initial funding authorized by Metro and the Washington transportation department will be to peel back the curtain on how the project can advance racial equity.

“You need good data to make good decisions,” Peterson said. “This will pay for the engineering work that’s needed to help us make those choices.”

Those decisions will help establish the formula for figuring out how much money each state will need to contribute. At this time, there are no current cost estimates for what the new project could total. A conceptual finance plan published in 2020 stated a range of $3.2 billion to $4.8 billion, similar to estimates made for the failed Columbia River Crossing project.

New effort, same disagreements


Regional stakeholders also want a chance to express concerns around equity and reducing a new bridge’s potential environmental impact. That includes groups ranging from seasoned lobbying organizations such as 1,000 Friends of Oregon to newer, youth-organized advocacy groups like the Sunrise PDX Movement and No More Freeways.

Nearly a decade ago, the last attempt to replace the I-5 bridge died when Washington lawmakers couldn’t stomach spending $450 million to keep the project afloat; many on the Washington side of the debate cited the inclusion of light rail as a deal-breaker.

Today the conversation includes many of the same themes as in 2014: Can the nearly dozen government bodies and agencies with a role to play find a compromise over finance and design of a new bridge with so many competing interests at play?

But the infusion of new players and federal cash could provide the sweetener that helps project leaders find a compromise that works for all parties and finally replace a piece of ailing infrastructure that is no longer safe or functioning the way it was intended.

“We have the same problem,” said Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle. “It’s just worse now because we have 30,000 more people in Clark County than we had when we lost the project.”

McEnerny-Ogle isn’t new to the challenges posed by the Interstate Bridge Replacement.

She’s seen variations upon variations of this same conversation take place since she first entered public service nearly 14 years ago.

“What has changed is we didn’t talk about climate and equity all those many years ago,” she said. “We also have different policymakers. But we still have an old bridge sitting on wooden pilings in a pile of mud.”

Federal money is coming

A national spotlight is also adding to the pressure for all sides to come to an agreement.

Just last week, President Joe Biden referenced the project by name in a speech on fixing the nation’s ailing bridge infrastructure. Biden noted he’s dedicated $40 billion specifically to bridges, of which $12.5 billion will go to the most economically significant projects in the country, listing the Interstate Bridge among them.

“The excitement when the president actually mentioned the project…I was tickled to death,” McEnerny-Ogle said. “That’s how tremendous an opportunity this is for both sides of the Columbia River.”

While many see the Interstate Bridge as foremost a major logistical connection, others view it as an opportunity to create a more sustainable link between two communities.

Environmental advocates want project leaders to commit to studying the potential impact of tolls and ways to incentivize fewer trips, in turn reducing carbon emissions. They also want the decision-makers to be thinking about equity and ways to provide more accessible transportation options for low-income and disabled users of the bridge.

At the moment, those discussions center around pursuing a bridge that includes bus rapid transit — a program Clark County’s C-Tran has pursued in recent years with one line currently operating between downtown Vancouver and Vancouver Mall — or light rail.

Local, state and federal partners will also have to consider how the number of lanes on a new bridge might impact those environmental goals, and whether they will leave room for public transit.

For environmental and land-use planning advocates, the Interstate Bridge Replacement is an opportunity to use the new bridge as a “climate tool.”

Brett Morgan, transportation and metro policy planner at 1,000 Friends of Oregon, said that not over-building the bridge’s capacity is a central issue to his organization.

They hope to see a project that isn’t so exorbitantly big and expensive that the bridge’s transformational elements, such as the reduction of carbon emissions and providing more accessible transportation options, are not left behind.

“We can say fairly confidently that we want a bridge replacement. It’s not about ‘not’ building something, it’s about making sure we’re asking the right questions,” Morgan said. “How are using this bridge to meet our climate goals? Because as a region we’re not meeting them.”

For lawmakers like Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, who chairs the joint legislative committee representing Oregon’s interests, negotiations are already in a better place than they were in 2014; Oregon and Washington lawmakers are actually talking to each other.

“In 2013 we passed the bridge out of the legislature, and Washington chose to do nothing,” Beyer said. “As a result, we lost over a billion dollars in dedicated federal funding.”

Beyer said he’s inspired that it’s Washington lawmakers and local leaders like McEnerngy-Ogle who are helping revive the conversation.

Beyer said Oregon lawmakers hope to make a preliminary decision on certain design aspects and lingering questions regarding interchanges and the number of lanes sometime in April before all parties weigh in on the project in June.

That decision will rely heavily on public input and research currently being gathered by project staff.

McEnerny-Ogle said her confidence level is currently an eight out of 10 that the effort won’t end in failure again.

“I think we can do this,” she said. “But we need to figure out those little barriers, get creative to see how we can get over them and keep moving on.”