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Plans for the interstate bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver are moving forward.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Regional planners say the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River needs to be replaced to improve congestion and build a structure that can withstand an earthquake.It's been a long time coming for the Interstate Bridge replacement project, a much-needed mega infrastructure project connecting Portland to Vancouver that's been talked about for more than 25 years — and this year, these plans are moving forward rapidly.

Megaproject experts from around the country met virtually on Thursday, April 14 at the fifth Annual Regional Transportation Summit to discuss strategies for major bridge projects in relation to the Interstate Bridge replacement project.

This comes after the approval of a federal infrastructure package, as well as a $1 billion commitment from Washington state for the bridge replacement project. The bridge design is expected to be finalized this summer.

Corky Collier, executive director of the Columbia Corridor Association, welcomed industry professionals to the summit.

"Our region is heavily shaped by transportation. It all connects our community and economy to nearby states, countries, and throughout the Pacific Rim," Collier said. "Transportation is more than mobility, it's our lifeblood."

Ron Arp, president of Identity Clark County, said the purpose of the summit is to inform and engage business leaders and policymakers about transportation critical to the Portland and Vancouver metro area.

"We're united in moving forward with a high-functioning transportation system," Arp said.

Regional challenges

Carley Francis, southwest regional administrator with WSDOT, and Rian Windsheimer, Portland metro region manager with ODOT, gave updates on regional transportation initiatives.

"I know you folks see bumpy roads, broken guardrails and things not looking too shiny out there … including more people facing houselessness and folks who stay on our right-of-way," Francis said. "Those are items we seek to address, but also face challenges working on those items."

Francis said WSDOT is still playing catchup on hiring, and is facing challenges with recruitment, as are many businesses in these post-pandemic days.

Funding and getting materials are also posing long-term challenges to infrastructure and transportation projects in the Vancouver area, Francis said.

"We can't build our way out of congestion. It's not a popular statement, but there is a limit," Francis said. "We have seen significant contributions from Washington state legislature to the I5 bridge replacement program, which is exciting and awesome. Looking at a set of transportation projects, they don't get funded every cycle."

Windsheimer said other maintenance projects can take up funding, such as the repainting of the Fremont bridge, which he said could cost $140 million when the project occurs after 2024.

"That's just to maintain the paint on this bridge, which is 50 years old and hasn't been repainted yet," Windsheimer said. "The scope of the project is real."

Windsheimer said ODOT has big Columbia Gorge projects on the schedule for this summer and into 2024, is working on truck traffic analytics, and is aware of the campers along the interstates, posing safety concerns after a number of deaths.

"It's a very different issue from the humanitarian perspective and the political perspective," Windsheimer said. "Last year, 27 pedestrians were killed within the city of Portland — the highest number ever — and 70% of those folks were homeless. Camping along a high-speed highway isn't safe. We're really making an effort to try to encourage the city of Portland to manage camps on our right of way within the city of Portland to try to make a difference and try to find other places for people to be. We applaud Mayor Wheeler for taking action to prioritize those camps to figure out how to address a real safety issue, so we can tackle housing and mental health issues."

Megaproject strategies

Megaproject managers from all over the country spoke on a panel at the summit, including Jim Ruddel from Bend, who served as the program manager on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Washington, D.C. and Mohammed Alghurabi, who is the senior project manager on the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Detroit.

"Hearing about other megaprojects shows there are commonalities," Ruddel said. "There are several issues (the Woodrow Wilson bridge project has) in common with the Interstate bridge project."

Ruddel said the D.C.-area bridge stalled out for about 10 years after the initial effort, similar to the Interstate bridge project, due to public resistance.

"So, a new approach went to engage the public to earn their buy-in, and one thing that came about is a compromise on the number of lanes, decisions on transit, and decisions not to include tolls," Ruddel said.

There was also an asymmetrical socioeconomic impact to work out, as initial bridge plans relocated 273 people on the Vermont side, but only three in Maryland, he said.

Ruddel said after receiving only one contract in answer to their first bid—which was $380 million over budget—they went back and split it into three separate contracts. This allowed the unique skill of contracting the moveable bascule bridge part to be carved out as a standalone project—and then, bids came in within 2% of the original engineer's estimate, Ruddel said.

"This Columbia River project is amazing, I've been following it pretty closely," Alghurabi said.

Alghurabi said similarly to the I-5 bridge project, the Gordie Howe bridge spans two political jurisdictions, making communication a high priority. It took five months just to decide which measuring system to use, he said, and things like having different holidays affected when closures could be scheduled.

"The bridge was so desperately needed because Canada is our largest trading partner, there is so much that goes back and forth," Alghurabi said. "The political aspects, you can only imagine the challenges, that's why it's taking so long."

Panelist Jeanine Viscount, deputy program administrator of the Puget Sound Gateway Program, said on that project, a good strategy was getting the small projects off the ground first as they were forming the $2 billion program, allowing them to tighten up procurement specs that could cause bigger problems on the bigger project.

I-5 Bridge Replacement Program updates

Greg Johnson, administrator of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, said the project has been talked about for more than a quarter of a century, since 2004. It was shelved in 2014, and then revived in 2019 by Governors Kate Brown and Jay Inslee.

Johnson said this time, each state has put forward $45 million each for a total of $90 million to get the project through the environmental process. This time, the project also has a bistate legislative committee.

Johnson, who has been on the project since 2020, said it is still in the planning and environmental stage, but has a unique advantage of having a history on record from the last attempt at the project.

"We have to now go back and see the record, see what has changed between now and then, and put together a new program to get through the environmental process," Johnson said. "We are at a key point putting together a locally preferred alternative to take into the supplemental environmental impact statement process."

If successful, then the project will go into pre-production at the end of 2023 and start putting out construction contracts to begin work in late 2025, he said.

"We are still on target, we are hitting all of our deadlines," Johnson said.

He said details are being worked out surrounding the design of the bridge, the interchanges on and around Hayden Island, the bridge crossing and alignment setup, as well as a funding gap.

"Thanks to the Washington State Legislature, we have a billion dollars dedicated for the local match," Johnson said. "Then in 2023, we will be going before the Oregon Legislature to ask for a similar commitment, so 2023 will be a big year."

Johnson said next steps for 2022 include identifying initial recommendations on program components by May; programming boards, councils and commissions between May and July; and the endorsement and bi-state legislative committee review in July and August. Updates to the conceptual finance plans are slated for fall 2022 in preparation for the 2023 Oregon Legislature.

Additional development of design details, including the bridge type, active transportation facilities, and transit details are scheduled for mid-2022 through mid-2024.

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