Things always seem to get more expensive this time of year. But a new price tag hanging from one of the most important infrastructure projects in the Pacific Northwest isn’t due to the holidays.
Replacing the Interstate 5 Bridge, a vital connector between Oregon and Washington that has for years been eyed as an essential upgrade, is now expected to cost between $5 and $7.5 billion, according to updated cost estimates released Friday.
Previous estimates from 2020 ranged between $3.2 and $4.8 billion.
Driving this, according to transportation officials, is a constellation of economic issues: inflation, supply chain problems and shortages in the workforce. Greg Johnson, who is leading the team that is jointly funded by the two states to oversee the replacement, said infrastructure projects across the country are experiencing the same crunch.
“Projects of this size cost a lot,” Johnson said. “And the more they get delayed, the more they will cost.”
The new cost is expected to spur questions and more conversations between decision-makers and the public. Much of the funding is coming from state coffers in Oregon and Washington, with lawmakers deciding how much to earmark. Another big chunk is to be collected directly from drivers when they pay tolls on the new bridge.
Transportation officials also hope to net between $1.6 billion and $2.7 billion from federal grants.
But most of that funding has not been secured. So far, Washington state is the only stakeholder to contribute a significant amount. Earlier this year, lawmakers earmarked $1 billion toward the bridge. They have expected their counterparts in Oregon to match that largesse during the upcoming legislative session.
Many lawmakers declined to comment to OPB, saying they were still processing news of the bridge’s updated price.
Johnson remains confident. In an interview, he said he predicted the final price would hover around $6 billion. Between the state funds, federal grants and tolls, he said, the project’s cost should be covered.
To date, transportation officials have not stated how much drivers will pay in tolls. Johnson did not answer an emailed follow-up question asking if the new price affected what they expected to charge drivers.
Some lawmakers could soon be asking about whether the bridge replacement should be scaled down. State Rep. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, who sits on the bistate committee, said she and other committee members wonder if shaving down some of the bridge plans could save costs.
“There’s just a lot of question marks here,” she said. Wilson, who has long opposed plans for light rail to come into Clark County, said she planned to keep questioning if it’s an essential piece.
Plans call for light rail to run alongside the bridge on an elevated structure and continue into downtown Vancouver for multiple stops. Johnson cautioned that light rail, and other components of the bridge, can’t simply be mixed and matched to lower costs.
For example, Johnson said, a grant from the Federal Transit Authority that could be worth more than $1 billion is contingent on light rail being included in the project. Stakeholders have also deliberated for years on what they are willing and unwilling to see on the bridge.
“To pull at the strings of this deal is I think a dangerous thing to do, because it took us a lot of time and effort to get everyone comfortable with moving this thing forward,” Johnson said.
A new bridge has been in the works, in one form or another, for years. Officials from Oregon and Washington last decade spent millions on an effort known as the Columbia River Crossing, before Washington lawmakers scrapped the plan in 2013.
The bridge is a major thoroughfare for commerce on the West Coast. In 2019, more than 143,000 vehicles crossed the bridge daily, according to transportation agencies in Oregon and Washington — about 10% of those were freight trucks.
In January, President Joe Biden referenced the project by name during a speech on the importance of investing in fixing the country’s infrastructure.
This story may be updated.