Early work on a project to replace the aging Interstate 5 bridge shows that a solution could range from about $3-$5 billion, with tolling an inevitability in order to help fund the process.
Members of the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee met virtually Nov. 24 to hear updates on a number of aspects of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program. Chief among the updates was a draft conceptual program finance plan, which used past work from the failed Columbia River Crossing project to determine rough estimates of potential costs for a bridge replacement.
Project financial structures lead Brent Baker explained at the meeting that costs based on current information ranged from between about $3.3 billion to $4.8 billion for a project featuring light rail, and between about $3.2 billion and $4.3 billion for bus rapid transit. Though relying on financial analysis from the CRC made in 2012, replacement project assistant program administrator Ray Mabey said that the assumptions made did not assume the same outcomes for the new project as the old one, which ultimately failed to come to fruition in 2013.
The new estimates were based on construction beginning in 2025, with a new bridge open for operation in 2030. The plan identified Federal Transit Authority grants ranging from $250 million to $930 million for the project, with generally more grant funding available for a project featuring light rail.
As part of the finance plan there was an estimated $850 million to $1.3 billion derived from tolling. Baker noted the estimate did not include pre-completion tolling, which he said could result in an additional $250 million to $300 million.
“Projects of this size always include some element of self-funding such as tolling,” replacement project administrator Greg Johnson said. Even with tolling accounted for, the financial plan showed funding gaps ranging from about $1.8 billion to roughly $2.3 billion, based on cost scenarios.
Noting a number of caveats about how precise the financial reality could be determined at that time, Mabey said that both Oregon and Washington would likely require to contribute $750 million to $1 billion each to make cost estimates.
Mabey said that funding needs in the next two biennia included program development, right of way acquisition and the start of construction. He said the funding gap for the 2021-2023 biennium ranged from $12 million to $45 million, and in the 2023-2025 biennium the gap range was between $173 million and $338 million.
Baker said the current finance plan wasn’t a complete evaluation of funding options or a complete cost estimate. Those more precise numbers would come after the completion of other steps in the project timeline, namely feedback and recommendations from a handful of advisory and executive groups that will help steer the project’s more conceptual aspects.
Johnson said at the time of the meeting that the project was “standing upright and walking,” adding that a number of developments needed to happen in 2021 to be “up and running” with the project. Among those developments were the convening of two advisory groups, one focused on the project area community and another on equity issues.
Johnson said the project was targeting for the advisory groups to start meeting in January, looking at monthly meetings at a minimum. A third group, the Executive Steering Group, had already met in November, featuring representatives of city and regional agencies and governments.
Those groups’ meetings would be viewable by the public. Johnson believed there were around 120 viewers of the executive steering committee’s first meeting. Community engagement was another aspect of the overall project in its pre-construction phase.
Johnson said on the current schedule the bi-state committee would likely be making endorsements in May on both the project’s purpose and need statement and its community vision and values. He said the project schedule was pushed back from initial dates in order to have the advisory groups set up to inform the purpose and need development, as well as community vision and values.
Though work on developing some aspects of the project have been pushed back, Johnson said major milestones in getting the project completed remained the same, noting a window of late 2023 to early 2024 for getting a record of decision from the Federal Highway Administration for the project.