The project office says it can still pull together the necessary funding in time for a late 2025 start of construction.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The team developing a replacement for the Interstate Bridge dropped some hair-raising news in December when the office released an updated cost estimate that raised the project’s price tag from about $4 billion to about $6 billion.

Despite the roughly 50% increase, Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson said the project is still on track to break ground in late 2025 — and his office isn’t planning to ask Oregon and Washington for more money beyond the $1 billion that it’s already seeking from each state.

Washington and Oregon created the IBR program in 2019 as a successor to a previous bridge replacement attempt, the Columbia River Crossing, which fell apart during the planning stages in 2013.

The project team settled on preferred conceptual design last year that included a new crossing with four lanes in each direction, extending TriMet’s MAX Yellow Line across the river to Vancouver and rebuilding or modifying several interchanges on either side of the river. 

That plan is now going through the federal environmental review process with the goal of having a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement ready for public review in the late summer or early fall, according to IBR Program Administrator Greg Johnson.

Rising price tag

The original $4 billion number — technically a range of $3.2 to $4.8 billion — was calculated in 2020 by taking the old estimates from the Columbia River Crossing and raising them to account for inflation. 

The new estimate of $5 to $7.5 billion is based on the IBR project’s preferred design, Johnson said, which means it’s the first to account for some of the new pieces that were added to the IBR plan, such as a full replacement of the bridge that carries I-5 from the Oregon mainland to Hayden Island.

The IBR plan also puts the light rail extension on an elevated structure along I-5 rather than running on downtown Vancouver streets. It throws in an elevated Vancouver Waterfront station, which Johnson acknowledged would be “tremendously expensive to build.”

Even so, Johnson said the “vast majority” of the $2 billion increase comes down to the rapid pace of inflation and supply chain issues that have popped up in the past two years.

“Those (new project components) are things that have added to it, but those things get dwarfed by the inflationary pressures that we’re seeing in the construction industry,” he said.

Closing the funding gap

The earlier conceptual finance plan called for splitting the $4 billion cost roughly evenly between Oregon, Washington, the federal government and bridge toll revenue, but Johnson said his office will try to lean harder on federal sources to catch up on the additional $2 billion in the new price tag.

“We’re looking at our federal sources of funding to help defray any other pressures on… tolling or local funding,” he said. “We’re looking to our federal partners to help fill in that gap.”

Washington State lawmakers committed $1 billion toward the project last year, and the project office is planning to ask the Oregon legislature to do the same during this year’s session. The size of those funding requests hasn’t changed, Johnson said.

The same goes for tolling, at least for the moment. The CRC’s estimate was $2 to $4 per trip, Johnson said, so that’s what the team used as a placeholder to calculate tolling revenue for the first estimate back in 2020 — and the current estimate sticks with those numbers.

Those are not the final toll prices, however — additional tolling and revenue research needs to be done to get up-to-date estimates, and it’s ultimately up to the Washington and Oregon transportation commissions, not the IBR office, to set tolling rates.

One of the federal funding sources the program hopes to tap is the Federal Highway Administration’s Large Bridge Grants program, which was established as part of the infrastructure package that President Joe Biden signed in late 2021.

The Biden Administration announced the first round of grant recipients Wednesday and the IBR project failed to grab one of the slots, but Johnson said his office will re-apply later this year for a future round.

He also pointed to one of the first-round awards as an encouraging sign: Kentucky will receive $1.385 billion for a megaproject to build a new bridge alongside the bottlenecked Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River. Johnson said he thinks the IBR project could eventually land an even larger grant.

Pieces of the program

If the funding ultimately falls short, the IBR team could look at ways to downsize the project, Johnson said, such as by moving certain components out of the program and leaving them for future construction, although he added that it’s tricky because there’s already “not a lot of fat” in the project plan.

“There are some folks who write into the editorial pages of the paper and say, ‘well, just take the transit elements out,’ but transit elements are helping to pay for the bridge itself,” he said. “So, if you take transit out, you now lessen the amount of dollars you will get (from the US Department of Transportation) for paying for the bridge. So this is a very intricately linked set of design elements.”

Some of the project’s critics might disagree with the “not a lot of fat” assertion. The light rail element has been controversial and other critics have taken aim at the rest of the design plan. Arguing that it prioritizes freeway expansion at a time when states should be focused on reducing carbon emissions.

In an interview on KGW’s Straight Talk last year, Portland economist Joe Cortright criticized the width of the proposed replacement bridge and the decision to rebuild several nearby freeway interchanges as part of the project.

There isn’t currently a breakdown of how much of the overall $6 billion price tag will go to each piece of the project — the main bridge, the bridge to Hayden Island, the light rail extension, etc. — but state legislators have asked for that, Johnson said, and the project office will release one by the end of this month.

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