You might have heard that the Washington legislature has finally ponied up some cash — $1 billion to be exact — to help pay for a freeway expansion and bridge megaproject between Portland and Vancouver. This is great news for boosters of the project and elected officials, because it was that same legislative body that killed the project (formerly known as the Columbia River Crossing) in 2013 when they opted not to fund it out of fear that it would include light rail.
But while glasses are raised in celebration of a major funding milestone, the vibes on this project were anything but celebratory at the Oregon Transportation Commission meeting Thursday.
“Is the IBR and the Rose Quarter really where our state wants to spend the money?”
— Sharon Smith, OTC
“We don’t have the dollars to do this.”
— Julie Brown, OTC
At the meeting, Commissioners heard an update on the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBR) from project administrator Greg Johnson (above). Johnson gave an update on the financing of the project and explained that the current cost estimate is $3.2 to $4.8 billion. He painted an optimistic picture of the commitment from Washington, saying that it’s a “very important step” and a “signal to federal partners that we are serious about getting this program done.”
But almost immediately, four of five OTC members expressed deeply skeptical views of the future funding prospects of not just the IBR, but other freeway expansion projects in the Portland region. It was a rare expression of doubt from a powerful body that sets ODOT policy and an illustration that cracks might be forming in Oregon’s plans to continue widening freeways despite crises around oil production, the price of gas, climate change, and growing public backlash.
Keep in mind that the $1 billion from Washington would just cover their local share. If the project ever gets built, that funding would need to be combined with Oregon’s share (which would also be $1 billion), a big grant from the federal government, and tolls. And those are just construction dollars. The old CRC spent around nearly $200 million on planning and the current IBR team of staff and consultants are burning through $80 million in administrative expenses.
Commissioner Julie Brown was first to throw cold water on Johnson’s presentation. She’s worried that ODOT is taking too long to begin tolling to pay for this and two other freeway expansions (the I-5 Rose Quarter and I-205 Abernethy Bridge project near Oregon City). IBR staff says they don’t expect to start tolling until late 2025 or early 2026. “The longer this project goes, the more it’s going to cost,” Commissioner Brown said. “You know, are we being realistic in waiting? If we’re going to do this, let’s just do it. I mean, what are we waiting for? It’s going to hurt [politically], but this is the reality. We don’t have the dollars to do this.”
“I’ll probably never be elected to any office because of my statements,” Brown continued. “But we have to pay for this. And so let’s be real about it.”
Why is Brown so eager to start tolling? Because none of the projects pencil out without toll revenue.
“I’ll just say it,” OTC Chair Bob Van Brocklin said in reply to Brown’s comment. “I don’t think this bridge gets built without being tolled.” Van Brocklin doesn’t think ODOT can build any of the freeway megaprojects they have on tap without a regional tolling system in place. He also pointed out that Oregon doesn’t even have a tolling office set up yet and it’s going to cost $400 to $500 million to create one. And this is to say nothing about the potential political blowback when the public realizes they’ll be charged for something they’ve always done for free.
A few minutes later Van Brocklin said,
“I think it comes down to this simple conclusion, which is, if we don’t have tolling, I don’t see an alternative funding mechanism to do any of these. I don’t think we don’t have the resources to build the Abernethy Bridge, the Rose Quarter project, or the Interstate Bridge without tolling… I just think that’s the reality of it.”
Another big dose of reality came when Commissioner Sharon Smith piped up with her concerns about funding these projects. Smith mentioned the ongoing conversation about how to spend $400 million coming to Oregon as part of the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and how the OTC has heard loud and clear that the public wants those funds reserved for things like transit, bicycling, and other climate-resilient projects.
“It just makes me ask the question: Is the IBR and the Rose Quarter really where our state wants to spend the money?”
Johnson retorted quickly that some federal funds are earmarked for massive freeway projects and that if Oregon doesn’t get them, they’d be sent to another state.
Smith said, “I totally understand that. But we’ve still got to come up with a billion dollars at the state level.”
At that point, Chair Van Brocklin continued to share very candid comments about the corner the State of Oregon has painted itself into by pushing for so many expensive freeway projects:
“We’re’re not going to raise $3.5 billion, $4 billion, or a billion for the Rose Quarter or whatever the number is for the Abernethy. We have been directed to toll. It’s a statue statutory mandate. And we’ve been directed to build the I-205 and the Rose Quarter projects. So maybe all those get reviewed at the legislature.”
Is Van Brocklin suggesting that the legislature re-think it’s decisions to force ODOT’s hand on these projects? (Keep in that the legislature never detailed what type of project ODOT should build, they only directed them to solve congestion. ODOT chose wider freeways instead of other options.)
Sensing skepticism from fellow commissioners, Van Brocklin then questioned whether the IBR would ever even happen. “I find it hard to imagine that at some point, we’re not going to do something with the Interstate Bridge.” Then, after throwing major shade at the Washington legislature for the failure of the CRC in 2013 (“if [they had] shown leadership and approved it, it would be up, we’d be using it”), Van Brocklin turned to ODOT Director Kris Strickler and asked, “Don’t you think it’s inevitable? I mean, it’s so old!”
Strickler didn’t take the bait and replied that without broad partnerships and a funding package that pulls from many sources, “I don’t see big projects like this going forward.”
Asked for his comment on the situation, OTC member Alando Simpson lamented on the lack of unity in Oregon around support for the IBR and other freeway megaprojects. “Our problem is we have too many divorces going on around here… everybody’s on their own path right now and nobody’s working in unison towards the North Star. So that’s why we have the dysfunction that we have.”
Simpson warned that Oregon must work on being more unified or federal funding will pass us by.
This debate will heat up when the Oregon Legislature convenes again in 2023. ODOT Government Affairs Director Lindsay Baker shared at yesterday’s meeting that they plan to introduce a bill specifically to settle the debate on IBR project funding. Stay tuned.