The political leadership debacle that blocked replacement of the outdated Interstate 5 bridge between Washington and Oregon has held back both states for far too long. Now that the inertia has wearied federal patience, the two state governments must step up and support an ambitious construction timeline.
The Federal Highway Administration in September laid down specific dates for preliminary work on the bridge, with the start of construction by summer 2025. That’s 21 years after federal funds were first authorized for this project.
In 2013, the Republican-controlled state Senate stopped a transportation package that included $450 million in bridge funding to match Oregon’s share of construction costs. This decision perpetuated commute congestion and placed a generation of drivers at risk of seismic catastrophe. It also tossed aside years of planning that had cost nearly $200 million.
A new bridge could by now be near completion. Instead, Washington and Oregon must take a cue from the federal rejection of both states’ requested 10-year extension and expedite the project. This bridge replacement is too critical to wait until 2029 to break ground.
The new bridge is a massive undertaking. It will cost billions of dollars and require years of disruptive construction. The previous idea, the Columbia River Crossing, was estimated to cost $3.4 billion. Expect a higher figure this time. Infrastructure costs rise when delayed, as inflation and right-of-way property prices escalate.
That’s one expense of the past inaction. A second is harder to calculate: The total price, fiscal and environmental, of extending the years cars and freight have had to slog through one of America’s worst traffic bottlenecks, according to the American Transportation Research Institute’s latest annual report. With no accommodation for commuter trains and one-third of the Clark County workforce employed in Oregon, I-5 today is a choke point that puts long- and short-haul travelers bumper-to-bumper.
It didn’t have to be this way. State Sen. Don Benton, the Clark County Republican, wielded influence that stopped the project six years ago because he didn’t want light rail on it. With Benton out of state politics, more reasonable minds must incorporate commuter trains in plans for a new bridge while accommodating industry’s shipping needs.
The politics of “no” will no longer suffice. The two spans over the Columbia date from 1917 and 1958. According to the Washington State Department of Transportation, the bridges need an estimated $280 million in maintenance through 2040. Included is a $75 million paint job to prevent rusting, but that will do nothing to cure their seismic vulnerability.
A modern bridge over the Columbia is too essential to the efficiency and commerce of the entire I-5 corridor to let slip any longer. The $35 million in the current Washington state transportation budget to kick-start planning is a good step. The federal government has made clear that it expects progress without further delay.
It’s possible the two state governments could afford to repay the feds’ $140-million if the next deadline is missed. But if that were to happen, exasperation from those who depend on the bridge will rightly become a formidable election concern.
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