The 100-year-old Interstate Bridge connecting Oregon to Washington over the Columbia River and carrying traffic on the Interstate 5 corridor is not a much-loved span. The tight corridor and seismically vulnerable state of the drawbridge routinely bottlenecks traffic between the two states. But efforts to replace the bridge, however far they’ve advanced in the past, have all fallen short. Now, though, a small bit of life comes back to the bridge replacement discussion.
It was Washington state that cut ties in 2013 with the $3 billion Columbia River Crossing project after millions of dollars were spent on design and planning. A subsequent Oregon-only effort to replace the bridge leading into the state’s most populated city never really got moving.
But governors in both states have backing from lawmakers to revisit the discussion of replacing the bridge and $35 million was placed in Washington’s most recent transportation budget to open and run a bridge project office, potentially helping fund design work.
“I-5 is the most important corridor on the West Coast for the movement of people and freight, and our bridge serves as the primary north-south transportation route through Portland and Vancouver,” Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, the bill’s prime sponsor, said in a statement. “Replacing this bridge really is of statewide significance, as the economic well-being of both states largely depends on people and goods crossing the river, so ensuring this connection is safe and reliable is a priority.”
Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, who sponsored companion legislation in the Washington Senate, said the bill will expediate efforts to replace a dilapidated, over-capacity span that was designed prior to modern earthquake standards.
“Probably no single goal has consumed more of my time in the Legislature than a new I-5 bridge,” she said in a statement. “After years of working to forge consensus on a path forward, we’re starting to see key pieces falling into place. This is only the latest, and one of many to follow.”
Data from the Washington State Dept. of Transportation shows 135,000 daily weekday crossings places the bridge at capacity during peak periods and steady growth in the area will further worsen conditions. Morning southbound travel delays increased from 6.4 minutes to 23.6 minutes between 2012 and 2017, an increase of 268 percent. Reports also show the bridge’s piers are susceptible to liquefaction in the event of an earthquake.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee are also both publicly discussing the importance of replacing the bridge.
As part of the new Washington effort, Oregon’s Dept. of Transportation will have a staff member join the new office and work on the early steps of the replacement potential. The first order of business will be to review what work might still be of use from the Columbia River Crossing project.
Not everyone has optimism the latest effort will lead to new construction. The $35 million figure won’t get the team far — even in planning and study — and Oregon lawmakers remain skeptical that Washington will pony up the real money needed to replace the crossing, especially after getting so far on the last major project before balking. Washington recently turned down a transportation budget that included $450 million for the bridge.
Spending the $35 million now, though, may actually save the states money, as both states received federal money during the Columbia River Crossing project and must show progress on the project in order to not be forced to pay back the sum.
Proponents of building a third span across the Columbia River in Portland — there is also an I-205 bridge east of I-5 — worry that the newfound focus on replacing the Interstate Bridge will end any efforts of building a third crossing.
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.