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Governors endorse replacing bridge between Oregon and Washington after previous project fizzled in 2013

COURTESY ODOT - Oregon and Washington legislators recently toured the Interstate 5 Bridge during discussions onon replacing the bridge.Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have a message for the residents of their states and the federal government: the Interstate Bridge between the two states must be replaced and the time to start is now.

Sitting side-by-side at a Monday morning press conference, Nov. 18, with the existing bridge in the background, Brown and Inslee signed a memorandum of intent to restart the failed process to replace the bridge that is more than 100 years old, frequently congested and likely would not survive even a minor earthquake.

"Both Oregon and Washington are currently experiencing unprecedented population, cultural and economic growth. This joint effort to replace the interstate bridge is critical to the safety and economies of both Oregon and Washington, and an important step forward as we invest in the growth of our region," Brown said.

The bridge that connects the vital Interstate 5 corridor also must be raised for ships to pass under it, causing frequent and lengthy traffic jams, especially during morning and evening commutes.

"The I-5 bridge is the only stoplight between Canada and Mexico on the I-5 corridor," Inslee said.

Brown and Inslee agreed that many issues need to be resolved before construction can begin. Those range from bridge design, cost and funding sources. Inslee was emphatic that a replacement bridge should qualify for substantial federal funding in any infrastructure financing package approved by Congress. President Donald Trump and both parties agree that investing much more in the nation's infrastructure should be a top priority, although they have yet to agree on a new program.

Both governors also agreed a replacement bridge should have high-capacity transit, although they believe studies are necessary to determine whether it should be a new light-rail or bus rapid transit line. (Vancouver-area residents have rejected the idea of adding a light-rail line to any replacement bridge.)

Tolling to help finance the project is also possible. "There are no preconditions," Inslee said.

Change in leadership

The Interstate Bridge is really two bridges connecting Oregon and Washington over the Columbia River. The first bridge opened in 1917 on the northbound side and replaced a ferry system between Hayden Island and Vancouver. That bridge was built with a vertical-lift system to allow river traffic to pass. A second bridge was added in 1958, also with a vertical-lift system.

The bridges carry more than 150,000 vehicles each day.

The Columbia River Crossing replacement project started in 2004 as a bi-state megaproject to modernize the five-mile stretch of I-5 that includes the bridge. After spending around $200 million on studies and planning, the project collapsed in 2013 when Republicans in the Washington State Senate decided not to pay that state's share of the estimated $3 billion work.

The partisan vote created hard feelings in Oregon, where the Legislature had approved state funding for the project. Washington's vote also meant the loss of federal funds available for the work.

Plans for the project went dormant for several years until a change in leadership at the Washington Legislature opened the door to restarting it. In December 2018, Inslee included $17.5 million in his budget to open a project office for the purpose of replacing the I-5 bridge. The funds were approved this year, prompting Oregon legislators to agree to rekindle discussions about the project. The total office budget has now grown to $44 million.

The states would have been required to repay the federal government $140 million spent on the previous project if it was not restarted by the end of this year.

Business organizations in both states strongly support replacing the bridge because of the delays it causes to freight shipments and employees getting to work. Environmentalists in Oregon opposed the Columbia River Crossing, arguing that increasing capacity will encourage even more motorists to use it, further increasing congestion and greenhouse gas emissions.

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