While all the attention at today’s Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC) meeting will be on the I-5 Rose Quarter Project, there’s another highway expansion mega-project that will take an important step forward.
The OTC is expected to give the Oregon Department of Transportation permission to enter into an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with the Washington Department of Transportation that will lay the groundwork for cooperation on a project to replace the I-5 bridges over the Columbia River. This is a resurrection of the ill-fated Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project that came crashing down in 2013 after the Washington legislature backed out of their funding commitments.
But since massive highway expansion projects are the air that keep state transportation agencies alive, after spending eight years and over $200 million the first time around, Oregon and Washington are eager to try again.
The IGA on today’s OTC’s agenda (PDF) outlines the roles and responsibilities of both state DOTs — from handling contractors to how to respond to public records requests. Most importantly, the agreement commits Oregon to 50% of the project planning and developments costs. Oregon has already spent $9 million on this project to help fill a funding pot with $35 million from Washington. Both states are working together to create a new project office and to hire a program administrator that will work for both DOTs.
The bridge replacement and highway expansion has already made its way into the local politics. At a mayoral candidate debate on March 8th, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler responded to a question about the I-5 Rose Quarter project by saying, “Then we have to talk about I-5 going over the Columbia River. We can’t just let it fall into the river. At some point we’re going to have to invest in that infrastructure as well.”
And interest groups are wasting no time rallying troops.
On March 11th, the Columbia Corridor Association, a nonprofit business association that represents an industrial district on the Oregon side of the river, sent an “urgent request” to its members. Urged on by Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, CCA leader Corky Collier wanted to drum up as many support letters from business owners as he could and send them to Oregon House Representative Peter DeFazio before he entered into infrastructure funding talks on Capitol Hill. “We have a short window to make a difference,” Collier wrote in the email. “We have a golden opportunity to have a powerful impact on the most important House member for transportation.”
The CCA included a form letter that read (in part), “We urge you to move quickly to replace the antiquated I-5 bridge… Today, the accident-prone bridge handles 140,000 vehicles a day and is considered one of the nation’s top freight and commerce bottlenecks.”
Last time around, the fight against this project was long and bruising. Given the intensity of the climate change movement (which was nowhere near as potent 10 years ago), the controversy surrounding the nearby I-5 Rose Quarter project, and continued lack of trust in ODOT, there’s no reason to assume things will be any smoother this time.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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