Lawmakers from both sides of the Columbia River met late last month to discuss the beginning stages of replacing the aging Interstate 5 bridge spans. Though no price tag for a project is available at this point, tolls and the potential of a phased project to avoid what led to the death of the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) are available avenues to see success where the CRC failed.
On Dec. 20 in downtown Vancouver, members of the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee met for their last meeting of the year. Lawmakers from both states heard a report from officials from Oregon and Washington’s respective transportation departments, as well as a timeframe the I-5 bridge replacement project would have to take to follow federal direction provided.
Washington and Oregon recently received an extension from the Federal Highway Authority on a deadline to repay close to $140 million from the CRC, a project that collapsed in 2013. As part of the extension, rekindled efforts for bridge replacement have to meet a timeline laid out by the feds that would see construction beginning in 2025 following completion of environmental review and acquisition of rights-of-way.
That timeframe was addressed by a report conducted jointly by Washington and Oregon’s departments of transportation. Officials from both presented to lawmakers on the committee, addressing the process of receiving stakeholder input and identifying a finance plan for the project.
How to pay
Regarding a finance plan, WSDOT Southwest Washington Assistant Regional Administrator Frank Green said that tolling would be a “major part” of financing for the project on top of looking for state and federal program funding. Green said it was likely to see public-private partnerships analysed for funding as well.
According to Green’s presentation, legislatures on both sides as well as the Oregon Transportation Commission would have to authorize the measure, with state transportation commissions setting the rates.
Transportation officials also talked about the possibility of phasing the project to make it more resilient to unavailable funding opportunities. ODOT Assistant Director Travis Brouwer said financing became an issue with the CRC when a “single point of failure” led to the effective death of the project, that of the Washington State Senate’s refusal to fund the project in 2013.
Who gets a say
While project staff work on the finance plan they will also be engaging with stakeholders and re-evaluating the project under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 2020. Part of that engagement included a facilitated partner process — Brouwer said a third-party facilitator from communications firm Kearns & West had been hired, intended to be a neutral coordinator between partners from governments and transportation agencies on both sides of the Columbia.
WSDOT Southwest Washington Regional Administrator Carley Francis stressed the need for an open, transparent process to meet both NEPA expectations and those of regional partners.
“The role of community engagement cannot be overstated,” Francis said. Part of the process would look at social, economic and environmental impacts the project would have; she brought up examples of air quality, residential and business displacement, improving throughput and reducing travel times, safety, and how equitably the benefits of bridge replacement would be spread across the community as things likely to be addressed.
Francis explained a NEPA re-evaluation would identify if additional environmental study was needed, something the departments anticipated and that would be clarified in that re-evaluation. Green said the likelihood of more environmental study was due to the time passed since the initial study done during the CRC was complete. He said it wasn’t uncommon for big-ticket projects to need additional study.
Brouwer provided a target date of June 30, 2021 to have made “significant progress” to begin the process of any necessary environmental review.
The facilitated partner process and re-engagement of stakeholders was included in the re-opening of a dedicated project office, something both states have already committed $44 million in doing. That office would include staff from the departments and partner agencies as well as consultants, and would be involved with design and engineering, environmental permitting and compliance, working through contracting mechanisms, financial planning and communications/external affairs.
Hire of a program administrator and consultant support was planned for Spring 2020, Brouwer said.
Bi-state bridge authority
Part of transportation legislation Washington lawmakers passed this year also tasked the agencies with studying the potential for a bi-state bridge authority which would jointly manage bridges over the Columbia River between Washington and Oregon.
Francis explained the study would examine national examples of similar authorities on how they function, how Oregon and Washington currently deal with the responsibilities handled by those authorities, and how an arrangement of an authority would look like.
Washington State Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver said exploration of a bi-state authority was an attempt to look at a way to handle projects the size of an I-5 bridge replacement and beyond, mentioning, “we have bridges all up and down the Columbia River in various states of repair and with various ownership and responsibilities.”
“My intent was not to get too far down this (potential authority process) but to make us conscious of this concept and this possibility,” Wylie said.
Washington Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center agreed with Wylie, adding she felt exploring an authority might lead to better connectivity among Washington and Oregon.
“If we had done this 50 years ago then we might have several more crossings between our fair states than we currently have,” Rivers said.