Think Out Loud

Revived Interstate 5 Bridge replacement slowly moves forward

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
May 10, 2022 4:43 p.m. Updated: May 17, 2022 4:03 p.m.

Broadcast: Tuesday, May 10

The Interstate 5 bridge connecting Washington and Oregon across the Columbia River as seen from Vancouver, Washington, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018.

The Interstate 5 Bridge connecting Washington and Oregon across the Columbia River as seen from Vancouver, Washington in 2018.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

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Government officials from Oregon and Washington met last week to discuss the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. The project must be approved by multiple agencies, including two state legislatures, and it’s already facing criticism from several groups. Some want a wider bridge with more lanes for vehicles, while others want something that places more emphasis on public transit and other alternatives to cars. OPB politics reporter Sam Stites has been covering this and joins us to talk about his reporting.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: A new bridge across the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver is inching forward. Last week, officials from Oregon and Washington met to talk about the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. They even have some initial designs to look at. Meanwhile, the pushback is heating up as well. Some people want a wider bridge with more lanes for cars and trucks. Others want to see more emphasis on public transit and other alternatives to cars. OPD Political reporter Sam Stites has been covering this and he joins us now. Sam welcome back.  Let’s start with the basics. What is the issue with the current bridge and what are the arguments in favor of a new one?

Sam Stites:  First off, the bridge is fairly old. It’s a pair of through-truss style bridges. That northbound section was built in 1917, so more than 100 years old now. Southbound lanes were built in 1958. They’re built on wooden pilings on top of what is essentially mud that, seismologists say, would liquefy even further in the event of an earthquake, just generally unsafe, seismically, compared to some newer methods of construction. It’s also considered one of the more significant pinch points in the region traffic-wise. Drivers experience congestion between 6 to 8 hours a day, on average. It’s also a common freight route for interstate commerce but also for international trade between Canada and Mexico. So there’s some significant upsides to a new bridge. But also safety is a huge concern.

Miller:  Can you remind folks what happened with the last iteration of a bridge replacement, which was called the Columbia River crossing?

Stites:  Yeah, definitely. That effort was in the works for nearly a decade before talks between Oregon and Washington sort of broke down. It was originally designed to be about 12 lanes wide and include a light rail route across the river into Vancouver. That got pared back to, I think about 10 lanes. Things were getting serious in 2012 and a lot of money had been spent already around, I think it was 175 million on early planning and design work. Then when it came time for the Washington legislature to approve a $450 million expenditure to help pay for the actual bridge, they ended up backing out. One of the common objections was that  it included right light rail, which a lot of people in Clark county and, and the Washington legislature were not happy with. Others said, you know, simply that the bridge was unnecessary. The two governors at the time, Jay Inslee of Washington and John Kitzhaber here in Oregon, sat down to try and find a solution. But Oregon didn’t have the money or political will at the time to get it done on its own. So the project just sort of died.

Miller:  The new entity that’s working on a bridge is called the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project. They clearly did not want this to be called the Columbia River Crossing again. What is this new entity?

Stites:  In many ways it is a similar project because the problem is still the same, if not worse in some ways because traffic has gotten worse or, or so it seems to those who use the bridge. So the Columbia Crossing, like you said, kind of a clever rebranding to the interstate bridge replacement. Project managers are looking at an eight lane bridge that they said they want to pursue. So that would be three through lanes, which is what we have now plus two auxiliary lanes in each direction. So four and four. Planners say that those auxiliary lanes will help facilitate merging, entering and exiting throughout the bridge area.

They’re also saying that they prefer again to include light rail, which is expected to be potentially more expensive up front, but less expensive operationally per rider, [according to] what they say. It would also reconfigure the interchange near Marine Drive and on Hayden Island, significantly to try and prevent the traffic jams that back up there. It would also include a rebuild of the North Portland Harbor bridge, which is the piece of the bridge that connects Delta Park to Hayden Island over that first channel there.

Miller:  Two weeks ago, the project officials briefed local leaders and released some potential designs, what stood out to you in what we could finally see?

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Stites:  Yeah. And so just just to be clear that these are very, very preliminary, they say that design is about 2% done. So, these are just designs to kind of look at what it might look like. And the big thing for me is a lot of the view of it is from the top, that if you are going to be on the ground, this is going to be a very large bridge. It needs to be about 120 ft off the ground at its apex for river traffic to pass underneath without needing a lift. Vancouver just had a beautiful renovation of their downtown along the river. This bridge is gonna go right over that’s gonna block out some of that morning sun and possibly provide quite a bit of noise. It’ll be similar for residents of Hayden Island. If you’re on the ground approaching this bridge, it’s gonna look massive and there’s just no getting around that. The other thing is the project team hasn’t decided whether to go with a single double decker bridge or a two twin side by side bridges. The renderings mostly show the kind of the side by side configuration. That would include bike and pedestrian options as well as the light rail going kind of underneath those two bridges.

Miller: You mentioned light rail there again, just to be clear the federal government which is going to be crucial here in terms of money, they require some form of public transit. Right?

Stites:  Yes. So the project administrators say that for this bridge to be competitive in going out for federal grants, it will need to include some sort of mass transportation system. And the project administrators say that they would prefer to go after light rail to partner with Trimet to bring that Max Yellow line from the Expo Center into downtown Vancouver. But it’s not 100% decided. It could be bus rapid transit, those sort of longer express buses that C-TRAN has just recently implemented in Vancouver. So it’s not a done deal. But it’s looking like they want to go after light rail.

Miller:  We’re getting an update on the project to put in a new I-5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland. Sam Stites is with us. He is one of our PBS political reporters. Last year, the Clark County commission voted against tolls on a new bridge. The county doesn’t actually have an official vote on this. So this was more of a display of antagonism, but what have project leaders said about tolling?

Stites:  Of late, the discussion around tolling has kind of somewhat been absent, which is interesting because the Oregon legislature passed laws in 2017 and then again in 2021 that basically set the state up to begin implementing tolls as soon as possible. They want a toll basically from Wilsonville to the working border there at the north side. It doesn’t seem that there is a bunch of interest at the moment to get tolls placed on the bridge before construction begins. That is something that opponents of the bridge, or at least people who want to see a pared back scaled back version of the bridge, say could help alleviate traffic to the point where, maybe a new bridge isn’t even needed. They say opponents say that variably priced tolls - the more traffic, the peak hours are gonna be more expensive than say, if you’re taking a trip at midnight. [This] could get people to change their behavior, not take as many trips, use other modes of transportation or just not take a trip at all. So I think one of the things that is very clear is that the program is looking at equity here. They don’t want to be creating problems for people who need to commute, who are working jobs and not making a ton of money and tolling them out of being able to live where they want to live. I think that’s something that is in people’s minds. There has not been as much focus on the tolling conversation right now or so it seems in terms of what you would think, because of the legislature’s keenness to see how those programs are going to fold or unfold.

Miller:  Since 2014, the movement against expanding freeways and just more broadly against expanding car-based infrastructure has become a lot more visible and robust. It was there eight years ago, but it’s just stronger now. In particular we see it a lot with the focus against expanding I-5 near Portland’s Rose Quarter, which is maybe five miles south of the bridge. How much has that movement been focused on this new bridge project?

Stites: I would say that the anti-freeway movement cares just as much about what takes place with this bridge as it does the Rose Quarter. I think that the Rose Quarter [expansion project] is just conceivably closer to being a shovel-ready project and this requires more immediate attention or alarm.

Miller:  So what are climate activists pushing for?

Stites:  What it comes down to is more investment in public transportation and active transit. So that would be bike and pedestrian infrastructure. They want to see dollars for that type of infrastructure outpace freeway projects so that the region can become more walkable, bikable, cut down on greenhouse gas emissions and start advancing the state further towards its climate goals. In terms of the bridge, I think they really just want to see a scaled back project that meets sort of the bare minimum need for the region, encourages use of those other options and cuts down on the number of vehicle miles traveled.

Miller:  You noted that the Rose Quarter expansion is closer to actually happening although there are still some roadblocks for that. But what’s next in the process for the bridge replacement?

Stites:  There are some significant decisions that need to be made. Namely the number of lanes approving the inclusion of the max light rail across from from the Expo Center to downtown Vancouver, approving the configuration of the Hayden Island interchange and what style of bridge this is going to be. There are two meetings scheduled for later this month, One [meeting is] for the bridge’s Executive steering group that includes Metro Councilors, Portland’s City Commissioners, Vancouver representatives, Trimet and C-Tran folks. And then there’s the bi state legislative committee, which is lawmakers from both sides of the river who are overseeing the project. Members of both of those committees will be giving their last bits of feedback at those meetings that are May 19th and 20th on what administrators have presented so far and the potential options. And then they’re going to be making a decision sometime kind of close to the end of June or early July and then we will understand a lot better. The picture will be a lot clearer of what this bridge is actually gonna look like.

Miller:  You mentioned Washington lawmakers there, but as you noted at the beginning, it was Washington lawmakers, Republicans in Olympia who tanked the Columbia River crossing because of light rail. It seems like some version of light rail is going to be in the new plan. How much support is there in Olympia right now for some version of a new bridge.

Stites:  So from the meeting that I watched last week, it was pretty touch and go. Some of the same folks who were involved in 2013 are still lawmakers in Washington and I think that it still gives them heartburn. I think, too, that light rail is the preferred option. There’s definitely some feeling that they’re not being heard in terms of wanting the bridge to be wider, potentially including dedicated freight lanes. They explicitly have said that they’re getting a worse deal than what the Columbia River Crossing proposed almost a decade ago. More locally Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle is very supportive of the project, as well as, I think the co-chair of the bi state legislative committee, as a democrat, Senator Annette Cleveland from Vancouver. It seems like she really wants to capitalize on this moment where both states are doing well financially and the federal government is flush with cash specifically for infrastructure projects. So it feels pretty 50/50 at the moment. It’ll be interesting to see how these next discussions go.

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