Oregon and Washington continue the joint effort in restarting — yet again — discussions focused on replacing the aging Interstate Bride over the Columbia River, the Interstate 5 crossing that links the two Pacific Northwest states. The latest step comes in the announcement of a national search for a program administrator. 

The Oregon and Washington departments of transportation plan to identify a single administrator to lead the program office and answer to both state’s transportation departments. 

“We need to do everything possible to set this program up for success to meet the needs of the bi-state region,” Roger Millar, WSDOT secretary, says in a statement. “Having one top executive for the office that jointly represents both states will provide consistent leadership and a unified vision for the program.” 

The individual chosen for the new role will direct the multidisciplinary, multiagency team responsible for program development while working with groups in both states. Past efforts to work on a Columbia River crossing solution have led nowhere, often the result of one of the two states pulling out of the process without the backing of the other. 

“Replacing the Interstate Bridge is essential for the economic vitality, resiliency and livability of the entire Portland-Vancouver region,” Kris Strickler, ODOT director, said in a statement. “Finding a program administrator who can effectively lead the work of the office as a partnership effort will be critical to successfully identify a solution that truly reflects community needs and values.” 

The states’ two governors made the joint effort on the bottleneck-inducing bridge an official project again in November 2019, also part of an effort to stave off paying back the federal government roughly $140 million in grants already spent on a project to replace spans that opened in 1917 and 1958. 

By reopening the assignment, the two states opened a joint project office. Along with finding a program administrator, the office will need to see what still exists as workable material from the earlier joint project that was squashed by Washington lawmakers in 2013, even after nearly $200 million was spent on the Columbia River Crossing Project to replace the bridge. 

The states retained J. Tedesco & Associates to serve as the recruitment firm for the program administrator position. 

Once the joint office goes over what it still has, it can plan for what it still needs. 

The 2019 agreement states: “The work of this project office should include, but is not limited to, the reevaluation of the purpose and need identified for the project previously known as the Columbia River Crossing, the reevaluation of permits and development of a finance plan, the reengagement of key stakeholders and the public, and the reevaluation of scope, schedule and budget for a reinvigorated bi-state effort for replacement of the Interstate 5 Columbia River bridge.”

In an effort to keep within the federal timelines, even with extensions, the two states hope to get an environmental review of a new project moving this year and potentially start construction in the summer of 2025. That may be a bit aggressive, though, as there is still plenty of planning work that needs to be done on what will amount to a multi-billion project that has years of political hurdles ahead. The new agreement lasts for five years but can be voided by either state with a three-month notice. 

As the political fumbling has continued for years, mainly on the Washington side of the border, largely because the state’s biggest bottleneck of interstate, the two miles of freeway directly tied to the bridge, is far removed from the state’s political and population centers of the Puget Sound, and directly linked with Oregon’s largest city, the delays have only gotten worse. Average speeds across the bridge are down to 9 miles per hour. 

Any new bridge will assuage seismic concerns with the current structure, all while expanding capacity and making some sort of space concession for high-capacity transit, whether that be light rail or rapid bus lines. While still early in the new project plans and therefore too early to start placing price tags on the bridge, the governors did say they expect tolling will become a major part of the equation. 

Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb