By Don MacGillivray
The modernization of the I-5 Columbia River freeway bridge between Portland and Vancouver is a critical objective for the next decade.
The I-5 Bridge, previously known as the Columbia River Crossing (CRC), is a critical link for regional, national and international commerce that serves 125,000 vehicles per day on the West Coast’s longest north-south freeway system.
The Interstate Bridge consists of two side-by-side bridge spans. The southbound bridge was built in 1958 during the Eisenhower administration when the national highway system was constructed.
The northbound bridge, nearly identical, was built in 1917 and since its foundations are in sand, there is significant concern it won’t survive a major earthquake. This aging multi-modal bridge that provides so much value for people and commerce is overdue to be replaced with a structurally sound span.
The final environmental impact statement was completed back in September 2011 and construction was expected to begin in late 2014. Official cost estimates for the new bridge were $2.8 billion, with about half of the funding relying on tolls.
By 2013, the project was 18 months behind schedule and $100 million over budget. At that time the CRC replacement bridge was terminated because Washington State lawmakers declined to include a light rail transit line.
The greater definition of the bridge project caused increase concern and criticism of the bridge project increased. Concerns were expressed about the tolling plans because drivers could always avoid the tolls by diverting to the I-205 bridge.
A major objective was to reduce auto congestion, but much of the congestion is caused by the narrow sections of I-5 freeway on either side of the bridge, especially in the NE Portland area.
Climate change and the increased auto traffic were serious concerns. The recession of 2008 called into question the projected employment growth estimates in the region.
A revival of the CRC project was launched in 2017 as the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) after a three-year pause. This will prevent the loss of $140 million in federal CRC funding if construction begins in 2025.
Project administrators for the new bridge have been meeting with the federal government for three years to determine its potential design and funding.
In April 2019, the Washington legislature along with the Oregon Transportation Commission approved $35 million to establish a project office to conduct pre-design and planning for the IBR. The work on the environmental review for the project began in 2020.
The problems that must be addressed are many and significant. First is the congestion that slows traffic during peak travel times by as much as eight hours on weekdays.
Second is safety. The bridges have narrow lanes, without shoulders, poor sight distances. There are frequent bridge lifts and substandard ramps. Accidents would be reduced with a modern bridge design.
Third, the bridge is vulnerable to earthquakes because its foundations are in sand rather than on solid bedrock. Freight movement is impaired due to the congestion and safety problems on this critical West Coast trade route. Greater consideration must be given to pedestrians, cyclists and transit service.
The administrators and planners are committed to an equity-centered public process with outcomes that will not harm the many communities affected by the bridge construction and its future operation of this bridge. They have promised that equity will be embedded in every stage of this project through a transparent and open process.
The data and analysis will be made available to the public online and the public are encouraged to express their opinions in public meetings. Three groups have been assembled to provide organized input and review: an Executive Steering Group, of government representatives; a Community Advisory Group; and an Equity Advisory Group that will include a diversity of minority opinions.
The work on the design and transit options will take place in November and December of this year with a draft IBR solution released to the public in February. The preferred alternative will be submitted to the federal administration in May 2022.
The re-evaluation of the federal environmental review process will be completed by the end of 2023. Pre-construction begins in early 2024 and construction will start in mid-2025.
The capital costs of the IRB should range between $3.2 to 4.8 billion depending on its design and transit mode. Failure to begin construction on time will require that $140 million must be repaid to the federal government. The work will be reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration.
Oregon Congressmen Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, are on record as supporting the plans for the new IBR bridge, but only if it includes light rail.
Portland City Transportation Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is a member of the Executive Steering Group and has stated: “Climate and equity are two of the most urgent needs of our time.”
Lawmakers in Washington state continue to express skepticism while offering support for the bridge.
Government leaders say the Biden Infrastructure Plan is going to rebuild the 10 most economically significant bridges in America. The Columbia River Crossing should be on that list, but controversy and delay might compromise the process.