OPINION: Making progress toward replacing Interstate Bridge
As co-chair of the Interstate 5 Bridge Committee, I have the responsibility of working on a bi-state piece of our transportation system.
The I-5 bridge connects not just Oregon and Washington but serves as a principal trade route from Canada to Mexico. This vital connection must be updated for resiliency, safety and functionality.
Our focus as a committee is to produce a safe multi-modal replacement facility that serves the West Coast and local communities.
Planning, designing and building a multibillion-dollar mega-project over the course of a decade is a complex undertaking that must balance a number of differing priorities while accounting for numerous technical considerations.
This is certainly the case with the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program, the bi-state effort to replace the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River connecting Portland and Vancouver. While the technical aspects of such a project are demanding in and of themselves, what's arguably even more challenging is predicting the final details.
It's certainly understandable that there are questions about how this project will be funded. Those of us who serve in public office have a responsibility to taxpayers to be wise stewards of the money that is entrusted to the program.
It is the will of the governors and legislative leadership in both states that the IBR program maximize existing work from the previous project to achieve efficient decision making. We did not start from scratch, but are updating and improving upon past work that remains valid.
Having presented its recommendations for a Modified Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA) in early May, the IBR program is still in the conceptual design phase, or as program administrator Greg Johnson has said, at about the 2% point in overall design. This makes it appropriate that the current cost estimate is based on broad concepts with an inflation factor added.
The Modified LPA identifies some of the foundational elements of a multimodal corridor solution that will be further studied.
While the Modified LPA does not represent the final project that will ultimately be built, it is a key step in being able to move forward into more detailed program work that will allow for more in-depth conversations and decisions. This work will occur as part of the federal environmental review process, which will include many opportunities moving forward for people to have their voices heard.
This deeper dive will include determining details such as bridge configuration, transit station locations, right of way needs and appraisals, urban design elements and more. As more and more detail is determined, the program will be able to continue to refine cost estimates.
There have also been requests for the IBR program to conduct an investment grade traffic analysis before proceeding further into the design process.
An investment grade traffic study is a particular tool used to display to potential bond holders the viability of tolling to satisfy bond debt. The program will be doing numerous traffic analyses during this NEPA process to better understand traffic flows and projections, but spending the resources to complete this specific study now would be putting the cart before the horse.
An investment grade traffic study is conducted close to the time of tolling implementation to provide confidence to potential bond holders that the revenue assumptions are accurate. Tolling is currently estimated to begin in late 2025 or early 2026, pending legislative authorization and rate setting.
At an estimated cost in the range of $1.5-$2 million, an investment grade analysis would be an unnecessary and ill-informed expenditure at this juncture, given that it would have to be repeated at a more appropriate time.
We know that controlling costs for a mega-project like the IBR program will require many different strategies to account for contingencies such as market factors that cannot be controlled or completely anticipated. We expect that the program will be diligent in adopting best practices such as federally required workshops to help identify cost escalation risks; identifying appropriate delivery methods; constant refining of cost estimates as new design information is identified and industry trends are tracked; the use of appropriate contract incentives; material choices, industry reviews, appropriate inspection and oversight and many more.
Ultimately, it is important to remember that the IBR program is working through a dynamic and ongoing process that will continue to involve the community and stakeholders every step of the way. We must keep moving forward on this critical infrastructure improvement to get to a multimodal corridor solution that meets the complex needs of this bi-state region now and for future generations.
Susan McLain is state representative for House District 29, representing Forest Grove, Cornelius and parts of Hillsboro, and co-chair of the Joint Transportation Committee and Interstate 5 Bridge Committee. A Democrat, she lives in Forest Grove.
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