Interstate 5 bridge replacement will likely utilize light rail


The program to replace the aging Interstate 5 bridge inches closer to a final design as scenarios currently under consideration are likely to use light rail as its mass transit component.

During meetings on April 21, the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Executive Steering Group and the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee were briefed by program staff on what the bridge replacement could look like. Of the two options currently on the table, both will utilize light rail. 

In order to be eligible for federal funding, a mass transit component is necessary. Light rail, alongside bus rapid transit, were under consideration for that requirement, though staff said the benefits of light rail are greater.

Information presented at the legislative committee meeting showed light rail options would be eligible for more funding from the Federal Transit Administration Capital Investment Grant, though bus rapid transit would cost less overall and federal funding would make up slightly more proportionally.

IBRP Assistant Program Administrator Frank Green said a preliminary cost estimate shows the replacement would cost between $3.2 and $4.8 billion. Alongside federal grant opportunities, he said the project would seek state-level funding in 2023. Washington state already committed $1 billion in funding during the Legislature’s 2022 session.

Green anticipates the use of tolling to fund the replacement in part to serve as local matching funds for federal grants.

IBRP Deputy Program Manager John Willis said project research shows there is a greater demand for light rail than bus rapid transit. He noted capacity-wise, a two-car train could hold up to 266 passengers, while a bus could hold up to 100.

Though light rail would have a higher capital cost up front, Willis said its maintenance and operations costs through its lifespan would be lower than buses.

Light rail was part of the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, and was part of what derailed that effort in 2013 when the Washington Legislature denied funding. Much has changed in the years since, Willis explained, leading to a plan that still utilizes the transportation mode but with different parameters.

In 2013, Clark County’s transit authority, C-Tran, started to use its Vine bus rapid transit network. Vancouver has also experienced development on its waterfront which the replacement project considered when drafting the transit option.

The replacement project’s light rail line would extend north from the Portland Expo Center’s MAX train station. A major change for the current light rail option compared to the CRC proposal includes aligning the tracks with Interstate 5 past the bridge north and ending at Evergreen Boulevard. In the prior project, the line was set to run through downtown Vancouver.

C-Tran Chief Executive Officer Shawn Donaghy explained the development downtown since 2013 made extending light rail to that location less viable. Donaghy noted the transit authority has a second Vine line under construction, one in the planning stages and an extension to the existing Fourth Plain Boulevard line.

“By the time we actually construct the bridge, our (bus rapid transit) connection will be built. We’ll be waiting for that connection at Evergreen,” Donaghy said.

Though extending the light rail line as far north as Kiggins Bowl was initially under consideration, having it terminate at Evergreen Boulevard would lead to fewer property impacts. Ending there would also allow connectivity to Library Square at the corner of C Street and Evergreen Boulevard and at nearby city-owned parcels once they are developed.

The difference between the two options under consideration are the number of auxiliary lanes at interchanges in the project area. IBRP Administrator Greg Johnson said following April 21’s meetings that project staff would take comment from the different steering and advisory groups before coming up with the preferred scenario on May 5.

He said the final endorsement from the executive steering and bistate groups would come in mid-July. The option would be studied in depth for federal environmental review. The program’s current target would have a draft review ready in early 2023 for public input.

Though Johnson stressed a final decision has yet to be made, joint committee member Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, felt “the train has left the station” with the current focus on light rail as the rapid transit solution.

“I feel like we’ve had these discussions, but most of the discussions and decisions have been made not here at this group,” Wilson said about the process.

Following April 21’s meetings, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler criticized the decision to only look at light rail as an option. Herrera Beutler said the current replacement project has too closely reflected the CRC project, specifically on its insistence on light rail.

“This decision flies in the face of Southwest Washington voters who have soundly and repeatedly rejected bringing Portland’s light rail to Washington state along with the massive cost, river traffic limitations and public safety concerns that come with it,” Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, said in a statement.