Julia Shumway

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) State transportation officials and local leaders from Portland and Vancouver on Thursday urged an Oregon legislative panel to approve $1 billion to replace the aging Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.

The bridge is actually two bridges – a northbound bridge built in 1917 and a twin southbound bridge built in 1958. Tens of thousands of people use it every day to travel between Oregon and Washington, and it’s a congestion point on the main West Coast freight route.

It’s not built to withstand earthquakes, and it’s not safe for pedestrians, cyclists or transit users who need to travel between the two states. Officials in both states have long known that the bridge needs to be replaced, and Oregon Department of Transportation Director Kris Stickler told lawmakers on the Joint Transportation Committee the time is right to replace it following the federal government’s 2021 passage of a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill.

“The time is now,” he said. “We have the largest infrastructure opportunity available from the federal government.”

The bridge replacement is expected to cost between $5 billion and $7.5 billion, with the Oregon Department of Transportation saying the most likely cost is around $6 billion. A draft bill proposed by several members of the committee would cap the cost at $6.3 billion.

The cost includes improvements to seven interchanges and the highway on both the Oregon and Washington sides of the river, as well as transit and replacing the bridge itself.

Replacing the bridge is the most expensive part of the project, with estimates ranging from $1.64 billion to $2.45 billion. Improving interchanges and creating paths for bicyclists and pedestrians on either side of the river is expected to cost between about $2 billion and $3 billion total, nearly evenly split between the two states. And light rail and other transit connecting the two cities is estimated to cost between $1.3 billion and $2 billion.

Washington last year pledged $1 billion to the project, with the expectation that Oregon would match that contribution.

Vancouver Mayor Ann McEnerny-Ogle called in by video to urge Oregon legislators to support the bridge replacement. McEnerny-Ogle grew up in Oregon and spent 25 years commuting between Vancouver and Lake Oswego, so she knows the congestion well, she said.

“Washington committed their $1 billion, and we stand ready to partner with Oregon,” she said.

Lynn Peterson, president of the regional Metro Council, told lawmakers that U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg assured her that the bridge replacement is a top priority for federal officials.

“Local leaders have agreed on a solution, and all that is missing is Oregon’s contribution,” she said.

Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, said the federal government should pick up more of the cost. He also urged state transportation officials not to say local leaders supported the project, as state legislators haven’t yet had a chance to consider it.

“I’m not going to write you a check,” he said. “I’m going to vote against writing you a check here in a couple weeks.”

Oregon’s proposed state contributions would come through the sale of general obligation bonds.

Along with the state contributions, bridge funding plans rely on between $1.7 billion and $2.7 billion in federal grants for transit and highways. Project managers plan to start applying for grants this summer, and they need state commitments to be competitive, said Greg Johnson, program manager for the Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Program.

“We want to be in line with our hands raised early on before these dollars become short,” he said.

The remainder of the funding is supposed to come from tolling, with plans to capture up to $1.6 billion from tolls. State transportation commissions are considering tolls between $1.50 and $3.55 per trip, with higher rates during congested times.

Current plans call for three through lanes in each direction, with one or two auxiliary lanes between on-ramps and a bus lane on the shoulder. The unsuccessful Columbia River Crossing plan would have had five lanes in each direction.

The committee didn’t hear from bike and pedestrian activists, who spent the day at the Capitol urging lawmakers not to approve any plan that would widen the bridge. They wore yellow safety vests and carried bike helmets as symbols of their support for safe transportation for non-drivers.