The bi-state effort to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge between Oregon and Washington is considering slowing down just as it was gaining momentum.
The staff of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program had hoped to make a series of basic decisions about the project next March. But after Metro President Lynn Peterson and Portland Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty said it was moving too fast, Project Manager Greg Johnson said the decisions might not be made until June at the earliest.
Johnson told the Oregon Transportation Commission about the possible change during a project briefing at its Thursday, Nov. 18, meeting. The announcement came just days after President Joe Biden signed the $1.2 trillion federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that will provide both states with billions of additional dollars for transportation projects. The act also includes nearly $50 billion in three grant programs the project could quality for. And the Metro Council is now poised to approve $71 million in Oregon and Washington for the project on Dec. 2.
But Johnson was reacting to an Oct. 21 letter from Peterson and Hardesty that said the program needs to consider whether expanding transit options and imposing tolls on area freeways will reduce future traffic demand. He told the commission the research will be done.
"We need to see analysis that looks at what is possible if we fully invest in transit capacity and access and integrate equitable congestion pricing," said the letter on Metro and Portland Bureau of Transportation letterhead.
"We don't want to leave any of our partners behind," Johnson told the commission, even if that means changing the schedule.
Johnson and other program officials first told the Executive Steering Group advising the program that the additional research will be done hours before the commission hearing. Peterson and Hardesty serve on the group.
"We are committed to doing this project right," Hardesty said in response.
In addition, a coalition of 16 environmental groups wrote to support Peterson and Hardesty on Nov. 8. The letter also demanded the replacement bridge not have more than the six lanes on the current one, and that auxiliary on and off lanes not be added anywhere in the study corridor. The groups believe additional lanes will encourage more traffic, a result called "induced demand." All preliminary design options first unveiled on Oct. 21 allow for more lanes.
"We are deeply concerned that every iteration of the proposed bridge replacement designs includes the expansion of the existing right-of-way to include room for a 10-lane freeway," reads the letter, which was signed by 1000 Friends of Oregon, Sunrise Movement PDX and No More Freeways, among others. Most also are opposing the I-5 Rose Quarter Improvement Project for the same reason.
"I understand the argument about induced demand, but that's not what's happening here. We're trying to accommodate the existing demand," Johnson told the Portland Tribune before both meetings. He is a licensed professional engineer who has worked on major infrastructure projects in both Maryland and Michigan, including early involvement on the Gordie Howe International Bridge project that will cross the Detroit River between the United States and Canada.
Johnson told the transportation commission the schedule change must be approved by the Bi-State Legislative Committee overseeing the program. The decisions scheduled to be made by March or June include:
• How many motor vehicle lanes the replacement bridge will have.
• What form of high-capacity transit the bridge will have.
• Whether a new interchange should be built on Hayden Island.
• Whether the North Portland Harbor Bridge between the Marine Drive interchange and Hayden Island should be replace.
• What effects increased density, transit and tolls on area freeways will have on the need for auxiliary lanes.
More than 143,000 vehicles crossed the bridge each weekday in 2019, creating seven to 10 hours of daily congestion. Although traffic counts dropped during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have since rebounded. The program is working on projections for 2045 that will be available early next year.
The problems and dangers of the I-5 Bridge have long defied solutions. It is actually two bridges that are built side-by-side and carry three lanes of traffic each. The northbound span was completed in 1917. The southbound span was completed in 1958. Both are drawbridges that halt all traffic for larger ships and cargo to pass under them. Both are rated "functionally obsolete," and would fail and fall into the river in a large earthquake, where they also would block ship traffic. And the interchanges on both sides of the bridge are so closely spaced that they contribute to frequent traffic-blocking crashes.
But previous efforts to reduce congestion and increase safety have failed. Most recently, the bi-state Columbia River Crossing project collapsed in 2014 after the Washington Senate refused to pay for the light rail line that Oregon lawmakers were demanding. As a result, Oregon and Washington must now repay the federal government more than $135 million in federal highway funds used to pay for pre-construction planning and engineering on the scrapped project unless they make substantially progress towards building a new replacement bridge in coming years.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee agreed to relaunch the project as the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program in 2019 as a joint effort between the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Washington Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, Metro, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, the cities of Portland and Vancouver, the Port of Portland and the Port of Vancouver.
According to Johnson, the cost of the replacement bridge currently is estimated at up to $4.5 billion, although all of the major decision have yet to be made. He said the Oregon and Washington legislatures will be asked to up to $1.2 billion each in 2023, after which the federal government will be asked to contribute. Some of the funding will come from tolling, Johnson said, because that has been authorized by the Oregon Legislature.
The program has several advisory groups, include an Executive Steering Group made up of representatives from all partners and a community representative from each state.
The public is invited to learn more and weigh in in a series of online briefings and an interactive community survey that is live until Dec. 10. More information about the program, events, and taking the survey can be found at www.interstatebridge.org.
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