OPINION: Interstate 5 bridge replacement is an opportunity
When the Interstate 5 Bridge was an idea in its infancy in 1912, prominent Portland businessman J.H. Nolta argued, "We should not build the bridge for today, next week, or next year, but for the next 40 years."
Little could he imagine that the bridge they built would connect two cities, two states and three countries on the I-5 corridor for more than a century. Yet, 105 years later, that Bridge stands as a testament to the vision and commitment of political and civic leaders who knew they had a responsibility to build a Bridge, not just for their time but for future generations.
The current Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program is also a legacy project — a once-in-a-generation opportunity to modernize the infrastructure that can significantly improve our region's economic resiliency, support our climate goals, and ensure that the needs of future generations are met.
As the primary route connecting Canada and Mexico, I-5 is a vital regional, national, and international trade route that connects communities along its corridor.
Right now, the current I-5 bridge acts as a stop sign on this critical international trade route and essential community connection and falls far short of meeting our needs for safe, equitable, and environmentally responsible transportation.
The current bridge poses critical safety and congestion issues that are immediate as we face the possibility of failure if a major earthquake occurs. Crash rates in the area are over three times higher than the statewide average. And as we're sure many residents can attest, the existing shared-use path does not provide adequate space for people walking, biking, or rolling.
These safety issues also directly influence congestion, which in turn negatively impacts our economy and the environment.
In 2019, over 143,000 vehicles crossed the bridge each weekday, resulting in seven to 10 hours of congestion during peak travel periods.
The I-5 bridge is the worst bottleneck in Washington, the second-worst bottleneck in Oregon, and the 33rd-worst bottleneck in the nation (ATRI 2022 Report). Slow travel times and idling vehicles contribute to increased air pollution.
In 2017, $71 million in freight commodity value crossed the Interstate Bridge daily.
Quite simply, we cannot afford to allow these problems to persist.
With future generations in mind, the IBR program is committed to fiscal responsibility, centering equity, and advancing our shared climate goals. To ensure fiscal responsibility, the program will conduct multiple studies analyzing various tolling scenarios and costs, including a low-income toll report to help determine equitable toll rates.
As work progresses, the program will follow best practices (such as value engineering, cost-risk analysis, etc.) to help identify and address cost escalation risks and other financial considerations. The bi-state legislative committee, on which we serve as co-chairs, provides a critical oversight role in ensuring fiscal transparency and accountability. The IBR program is already demonstrating fiscal responsibility through its efforts to maximize federal funds.
The replacement of the I-5 Bridge has an opportunity to receive an infusion of federal dollars into the local economy. Without this program, these federal dollars would go elsewhere in the United States.
Centering equity through intentional and active community engagement has been a key tenet of the IBR program since its inception. Tangible ways in which this has been accomplished is through the Equity Advisory Group (EAG), which makes recommendations to program leadership regarding processes, policies, and decisions that have the potential to affect equity-priority communities. They also developed an Equity Framework that informed the development of design options, transit investments, and screening criteria — all of which led to the identification of the program's primary replacement option. The IBR program had substantial community outreach in 2021 and will continue that work over the next several years.
Finally, the IBR program will advance our shared climate goals. By expanding mass transit options, creating a safer route for people walking, biking, and rolling, and extending light rail from Portland to Vancouver, the IBR program is committed to designing with climate resiliency in mind and minimizing climate impacts through design, construction and operation.
Looking ahead, the new I-5 bridge will be future-compatible, climate-friendly infrastructure. The IBR program is a once-in-a-generation bi-state effort overseen by federal, state and local regulatory agencies — and individuals like you. Large projects like these take years to develop and depend upon strong partnerships between individuals, communities, and organizations who share a common vision for our future.
As the IBR program moves forward, we'll join our colleagues in asking tough questions and demanding answers, all while remaining committed to seeing this through.
The best ideas often result from the marriage of diverse perspectives. We encourage you to engage, share your ideas, voice your concerns, and commit to ensuring that our region has a bridge that will meet the needs of our communities for another hundred years.
Susan McLain is state representative for Oregon House District 29, including Forest Grove, Cornelius and West Hillsboro. A Democrat, she lives in Forest Grove.
Lee Beyer is state senator for Oregon Senate District 6, representing Springfield, South Eugene, and parts of rural Lane and Linn counties. A Democrat, he lives in Springfield.
Annette Cleveland is state senator for Washington's 49th Legislative District, representing central and west Vancouver. A Democrat, she lives in Vancouver.
The three state legislators co-chair the Joint Legislative Committee on the Interstate 5 Bridge.
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