Oregon, Washington lawmakers upbeat about I-5 bridge replacement
Julia Shumway & Jerry Cornfield
Oregon and Washington lawmakers got a clearer idea Friday of what a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River might look like, how much drivers may pay to use it and how residents of both states can stay involved as the project moves toward construction.
The three-hour virtual meeting was the first major update since each state approved spending $1 billion toward a new bridge. Washington lawmakers committed $1 billion in 2022, while Oregon lawmakers in June authorized the first of four anticipated $250 million bond sales to pay the state’s share of the bridge replacement.
“The project is clearly greenlighted and on the path to construction,” Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett and chair of Washington’s Senate Transportation Committee, said after the meeting.
Liias said Friday marked a significant shift in focus.
“A little more than a year ago the big, tough questions were ‘would we authorize tolling and would we cough up money to do the project’,” he said. “We’ve each put up our money and made the always unpopular decision to do tolls. We’ve demonstrated the political commitment and are literally now looking at pictures of what the bridge could look like.”
Lawmakers in both states have long acknowledged that the aging bridge, a congestion point on a key West Coast freight corridor, needs to be replaced. The bridge’s northbound span, the older of the pair, is 105 years old; the southbound side is 65 years old. Neither segment was built to withstand earthquakes.
The last replacement plan, the Columbia River Crossing, fell apart a decade ago. Now, transportation officials and lawmakers in both states see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take advantage of federal grants made available through the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021.
Still, it’s a sizable undertaking, carrying an estimated $6 billion price tag. Of that, about a third is for replacing the bridge, with the rest paying to extend light rail from Portland into Vancouver, Washington, and redo multiple interchanges in both states.
The $1 billion pledged by each state will cover a portion. Lawmakers count on securing funds from three different federal pots of money plus receipts from tolling. Under the current timeline, construction would begin by the end of 2025.
For whom the bridge tolls
Lawmakers acknowledged that tolling revenues need to cover the cost of operating and maintaining the bridge. Plans call for an anticipated $1.1 billion to $1.6 billion from tolls.
“We definitely don’t want to overstate the revenue we might get from tolling, so we try to use lower traffic models,” said Ray Mabey, assistant program administrator for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program.
Washington lawmakers authorized toll collection in their spring session. Majority Democrats pushed through legislation over the objection of most Republicans. It allows charging of tolls on the existing and replacement I-5 Columbia River bridges, between State Route 500 in Vancouver and the Victory Boulevard interchange in Portland. The law bars tolling any portion of Interstate 205 in Washington.
But tolling in Oregon remains up for debate. Gov. Tina Kotek, a Democrat, this spring ordered a moratorium on any toll collections until January 2026, and Clackamas County residents are collecting signatures for a proposed constitutional amendment that would require voter approval for any new tolls.
No Oregon highways have tolls, though Oregonians pay tolls on some bridges, including the Bridge of the Gods connecting Cascade Locks to Washington and the Hood River-White Salmon Bridge in the central Columbia River Gorge.
Drivers in the Evergreen State pay tolls to cross the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the Highway 520 floating bridge in Seattle and to travel on express lanes on Interstate 405 between Bothell and Bellevue, and farther south on Highway 167.
The Oregon Department of Transportation anticipated charging between $1.50 and $3.55 per trip on Interstate 5 and the auxiliary Interstate 205.
Rep. Susan McLain, a Hillsboro Democrat who chairs the Oregon Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, said the state will take a more thorough look at tolling and other ways to charge drivers for the miles they drive instead of relying on gas taxes when crafting its next transportation plan in 2025.
“That does not take away the commitment that we made to you, Washington, as far as tolling being utilized within the I-5 Bridge,” McLain said.
Oregon lawmakers and Kotek are also torn on whether to continue funding the project through state-issued bonds. House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, said at the end of the legislative session that future installments of the state’s share of the project could come from the 2025 transportation funding package or other sources, and that Washington’s and Oregon’s commitments could change depending on federal funding and the final bridge design.
Bridge plans in early stages
Planners are considering five different bridge designs, including three types of single-level bridges, a bridge with two decks and one that can be raised, similar to the current structure.
Designers initially planned for a bridge with 116 feet of clearance, which Mabey said would be enough for most river and commercial traffic. But the Coast Guard requested a higher bridge, with at least 178 feet of clearance. The bridge replacement team is considering a movable span, as well as talking to businesses and other river users to see if they can reach agreements for a shorter bridge.
All versions of the design would include separated paths for walkers, pedestrians and dedicated sections for transit, including an expanded light rail.
Portland-based cycling and transit advocates and state Rep. Khanh Pham, a Portland Democrat who has been the Legislature’s chief critic of the bridge replacement program, have objected to any plans they see as expanding freeways. An Oregon State Police officer escorted one advocate out of a June meeting where lawmakers approved the funding after he screamed that committee members were “climate arsonists.”
During Friday’s meeting, Pham said her constituents are angry that the state has money to spend on the new bridge but didn’t fund a request from Pham and several other legislators for safety improvements on Portland’s Powell Boulevard, a former section of state highway the city’s transportation bureau considers a high-crash corridor.
Eight people died on Portland streets within the past week, Pham said. That includes 18-year-old twin sisters who police say were speeding and drag racing on Powell Boulevard when they crashed into another car, killing the driver of the other car and themselves.
“This is about our values,” Pham said. “We have to prioritize human lives and the safety of our children and community first and foremost.”
Oregon Sen. Chris Gorsek, a Troutdale Democrat, said the bridge replacement is also a safety concern. If it’s not replaced, people could die when the long-anticipated Cascadia earthquake hits the Nnorthwest, he warned.
“The interstate bridge is a dangerous, dangerous bridge, and eventually it’s going to fail,” Gorsek said.
Interstate Bridge Replacement Program leaders plan to hold neighborhood forums, roundtable discussions and briefings as they finish an environmental study by the end of the year, and there will be more opportunities for public comment about the bridge ahead of the late 2025 or early 2026 start of construction.
Several lawmakers stressed the need for communication, and more meetings if necessary to ensure there is ample opportunity to weigh in on critical decisions.
“I worry about us being boxed in. I believe that we need to meet at the right times when we can have influence because these coming decisions are where we have a place to influence what this bridge will be or not,” said Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, chair of Washington’s House Transportation Committee.
Whatever it happens to be “we need to be brought in … otherwise I believe that I would be personally shirking my responsibilities by not having that conversation and getting the consensus of this group,” he said.
“None of us wants to be hemmed in,” Oregon chair McLain said, adding, “We are going to stay on schedule.”