The governors of Washington and Oregon have made a public statement about their intent to replace the Interstate 5 bridge, meeting in Vancouver last week to sign a memorandum of intent to open a joint state office tasked with a replacement project.
Gov. Jay Inslee and Gov. Kate Brown came to the banks of the Columbia River Nov. 18 for an event where they signed the memo. Inslee said the action was an official “restarting” of a bridge replacement project, a new effort following the demise of the Columbia River Crossing project in 2013.
Prior to signing, Inslee stressed that the project was vital given the current spans’ condition, adding they were at risk for seismic activity and would not be adequate for population and economic growth in the area.
“We do not have an option. This bridge needs to be replaced,” Inslee said.
Inslee noted that Washington has already been at work in reigniting a project, adding that both states combined had invested $44 million in reopening a project office.
Brown said that both states making a joint effort to replace the bridge was a “critical step forward” for investing in regional growth.
“It’s high time that we address the congestion between our two states and invest in a bridge that will stand the test of time,” Brown said.
She said the office the memo called for would look at what previous progress on bridge replacement could be built from and available federal funding, reporting back to both state legislatures on their findings.
The memo stated that the joint office would have a draft progress report to present to the governors and transportation committees in both states’ legislatures by Dec. 1, with a final one due a year after the draft.
“We have tough decisions ahead of us as partners,” Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar said, adding that before the states could start work on specifics they would have to determine the process with coming to those decisions together.
Inslee noted the memorandum called for any project plan to assume a high-capacity transit component. Brown said a traffic analysis would determine the best mode, be it by bus or dedicated light rail.
“We’re not setting preconditions, the type of high-capacity systems,” Inslee added.
Inslee said that a price tag on any bridge replacement is unknown as design hasn’t begun. It’s also unclear whether or not tolling would be involved. He noted the memo did not explicitly prevent tolling.
“That (tolling) could be under discussion,” Inslee said, speaking to the “reality” of uncertain federal funding, though he added any decision would be agreed on by both states.
Regarding securing federal funding, Inslee found it hard to believe that bridge replacement would not be in the “top echelon” of national infrastructure projects.
When asked what effect a recently approved voter initiative that would cut transportation funding would do to a bridge project, Inslee said that the passage of Initiative 976 would not immediately affect the work. Following the election, Inslee instructed WSDOT to not begin any new transportation projects while the state figures out how it can fund the projects without the revenue lost in tax changes the initiative would bring.
Inslee’s optimism that the $44 million already committed would lead to bridge replacement was based in the change of legislative makeup in Washington as well as growing attention on the need for a replacement as the bridge ages. Brown said she was able to see that Washington had “significant skin in the game” this time around.
When asked about whether or not the bridge would improve commute times, a sticking point for Washingtonians during discussions over the Columbia River Crossing, Inslee said that the issue wasn’t the primary one that people should look at. Bridge safety is paramount in his understanding of the replacement need, he said.
“This bridge could fall down any day with a small seismic event,” Inslee said. “We do not have a choice.”