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I-5 Bridge replacement could take years, depending on design

I-5 Bridge replacement could take years, depending on design

Although the state legislature did not pass the Forward Washington transportation package funding the I-5 Bridge replacement, preliminary discussions continue among the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Executive Steering Group. One aspect of that conversation is to what extent the new project’s impact mirrors the existing record of decision for the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) proposed back in 2013 that failed to get Washington legislative support.

The differences or similarities will determine its path moving forward under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and, consequently, how long residents in that region will have to wait for construction to begin.

A record of decision is issued by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) approving an environmental impact statement (EIS) for a highway project. That approval allows the head agency to begin design and construction.

According to Bi-State Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson, the worst-case scenario is that stakeholders will have to create an entirely new project under NEPA that could delay construction for 2-3 years. The best-case scenario has the project only in need of a limited scope EIS or a supplemental EIS. In that case, work on a new bridge could hypothetically begin sometime in 2025. 

“We know some of those options will be put to bed fairly easily,” Johnson said at the committee’s April 29 meeting. “Getting there is going to be a lengthier process.”

The steering committee and the connected Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee will still have to settle on various project details, disagreement on which caused the CRC to flounder. Among the major points of contention was what type of mass transit to include.

While the bridge is expected to include a toll of some type to finance some of the costs, left unsettled is whether to have bus rapid transit (BRT) or a light rail line from Vancouver to Portland’s existing system. Opposition to light rail was the primary cause of the CRC’s demise due to pushback by Southwest Washington legislators.

There’s also debate over the scope of the project. Some envision it merely replacing or retrofitting the century-old bridge, while others see it as an opportunity to add other nearby bridges or expand infrastructure on both sides of the Columbia River.

However, the project now will have additional considerations related to climate and “equity” – an advisory group is tasked with deciding what “equity” means, what should be achieved through the project, and how to measure its success. 

Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) Secretary Roger Millar said at the meeting there are “complex layers of consensus or consent that we need to achieve for this project to move forward. We need to have around this table our partners’ consent for the solution, the outcome. We might not get to a place where everybody around the table thinks that where we’re going is the best place to go, but we have to get to a place where everybody at this table can live with where we’re going.”

The steering committee’s next meeting is May 20.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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