Federal memo outlines constraints on Interstate 5 bridge replacement

Project must follow 10-year-old approval to avoid new environmental review

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The work to replace the aging Interstate 5 bridge hit an unexpected constraint in its planning process as federal agencies indicated it couldn’t make large changes to a 10-year-old review.

During a June 3 interview with The Reflector, Interstate Bridge Replacement Project Administrator Greg Johnson provided an update on how the project is progressing. For the last few months, much of the work has involved discussions with the Federal Highway Administration and the Federal Transit Authority on rules moving forward.

The agencies sent a memo to Johnson in May explaining that proposed changes to the project’s “purpose and need” could potentially be large enough to merit a completely new environmental review.

Currently, the project is relying on a prior federal record of decision and a local alternative from 2011 that is still valid. That decision was made for the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project.

Johnson said those currently involved with the project — which includes a number of advisory groups and a bi-state committee made up of state lawmakers from both Washington and Oregon — are in agreement that coming up with a new environmental review is not the way to go.

“Nobody wants to go back to square one,” Johnson said.

He said the time it would take to rework the plan could take anywhere from 18 months to three years.

Johnson noted a number of changes in the past 10 years, both in the environment in and around the corridor, and approaches to transportation infrastructure in general. A decade ago when the federal record was granted, the Vancouver waterfront had not yet been developed, presenting a potential challenge for putting in mass transit.

He added in 2011 the C-Tran did not have bus rapid transit running, though now the agency has The Vine which operates articulated buses within Vancouver. In Oregon, the western portion of Hayden Island was initially eyed for development, though now those plans have been scrapped.

Regarding approaches, Johnson said in 2011 equity in transportation was “just (in) the beginning of a discussion.”

“Now, that discussion has come to fruition, both locally and nationally,” Johnson said.

He added that climate impacts were understood at that time, but it wasn’t as much of a “front-burner issue” as it is now.

Though the memo brought to light constraints for the bridge project, Johnson said the federal partners understand the new project won’t be completely locked into the prior decision, giving the example of a building constructed in the footprint of the CRC design as something that could be taken into account without requiring a new environmental review.

Johnson said the design constraint of the project wasn’t expected at the beginning of discussions with federal agencies. He said most projects dissolve before a record of decision is made — for an I-5 bridge replacement, the CRC was quashed politically by Washington state lawmakers who declined to fund the project.

“This is a different set of circumstances than is seen across the country,” Johnson said.

Coming up with a new review would require new analysis on a no-build alternative or a third bridge corridor.

“All of these things could be once again put to bed, we are sure of that,” Johnson said, adding a third crossing would not address the essential problems identified in the corridor, ranging from safety to transit.

“It isn’t like the I-5 corridor problems are going to go away by having a third bridge corridor built,” Johnson said.

Though there might be some positive impacts from an additional crossing, the I-5 corridor would remain the most direct route for traffic traveling through the region.

Johnson said those involved with the current phase of the project are in “alignment on the path forward,” adding in some cases they are “fatigued of the discussion” ahead of actually looking at components that will make up a replacement.

“The discussion has been going on for 17 years and I think folks want to get to the answers,” Johnson said, adding those answers include aspects like the number of lanes, tolling, whether to have a direct interchange onto Hayden Island, or the type of transit involved.

Though light rail was the mode of mass transit identified during the CRC — and something many in Washington opposed — Johnson said relying on the prior review doesn’t preclude a bus rapid transit system. He said whatever mode of transit is identified would be based on current analysis for what works best and a decision couldn’t be made prematurely based on favoring one type of transit over the other.

“We’re going to look at what the data says,” Johnson said.

At the current phase of the project, Johnson believes construction could begin in 2025. Right now the anticipated cost is between $3.5 to $4.5 billion, though a more precise number will come into better focus when components are decided on.

Johnson said by about June 2022 he hopes to have those components put in front of advisory groups.

Currently, the project continues to facilitate outreach meetings by putting on listening sessions for different groups impacted by the corridor, Johnson said, adding there could be deeper dives into specific issues through working groups, like Hayden Island without a direct interchange.

Those involved in the project are also looking at how to secure federal funding, Johnson said, which would involve talking with the project area’s Congressional delegation for support.

“The iron is hot, and so we have to strike as they are discussing what a transportation bill would look like on a national level,” Johnson said.

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