Among the many questions yet to be answered regarding an Interstate Bridge replacement is how much the project will cost, to what extent it should be funded versus financed, and how much Washington and Oregon should be expected to contribute. As a draft conceptual finance plan (CFP) for the project is scheduled to be finished next week, some members of the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee wonder if those questions should be addressed first.
“We don’t have a project – we don’t know if we even need to purchase any right of way,” Republican Whip Sen. Ann Rivers (R-18) told colleagues at the Nov. 24 meeting. “We don’t know any of the design. This is really almost putting the cart before the horse. There are so many unknowns.”
The CFP developed by the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program is intended to update cost estimates made for the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project in 2012 along with the funding gap. Staff members estimate that the funding gap could range from $1.83 billion to $2.27 billion. Though the CFP will examine potential funding options and next steps to securing that money, it won’t make any recommendations. Co-Chair Sen. Lee Beyer (D-6) hopes that the project could take advantage of a federal infrastructure package. “I think our major problem down the line is an inability to fund the project.”
Federal funding could help the states avoid financing options such as bonding that requires the state to pay back the borrowed amount with interest. Federal funding composed 23 percent of the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement costs, and 25 percent of the State Route 520 Bridge replacement.
Bi-state Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson told the committee that to get federal funding the project will need to complete its environmental review first. “Some things we can accelerate, but we can’t cut steps out of that process. We’re going to put our name in the hat for any extra dollars that may come out of Washington (D.C.).”
However, Rivers said that “there are so many unknowns, that to talk about money at this point seems extraordinarily difficult.”
Among those unknowns are whether to go with another bridge or to do tunneling. A particularly controversial issue is the type of transit that will be included, such as bus rapid transit (BRT) or light rail. Yet the committee isn’t expected to get feedback from the various stakeholder groups on transit options until June. Depending on which is selected, it could add or subtract up to $1 billion of the total project costs. Another project detail yet to be decided is the tolling rate, which also has implications for funding.
Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17) also expressed reservations about a CFP before project specifics are determined. “We need to be fiscally responsible. At the same time, we need a bridge that will do what we want it to do. It feels like the cart before the horse.”
Washington State House Transportation Committee Chair Jake Fey (D-27) noted that if he were to put together a transportation package during the 2021 session that included the state’s financial contribution to the project, “it would be helpful for me to know what that is. If there’s an opportunity to move a transportation package I wouldn’t want to necessarily use the old number. Things have changed. We may not get a transportation package, but in order to inform people about what we might be looking for…it would be helpful.”
Former Washington District 18 legislative candidate John Ley told the committee that it also needs to update the project’s purpose and need statement, as well as provide specifics regarding the bridge’s minimum height, tolling maximum rate, and desired traffic improvements.
“Without your specific input, the bureaucrats will run wild,” he said.
The CFP will be submitted to the committee by Dec. 1.