State legislators from both Oregon and Washington didn’t raise many eyebrows at the news that the five-mile expansion of I-5 between Portland and Vancouver could end up being over $2.5 billion higher than previous estimates. The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program team fielded questions Monday from a joint legislative committee, but faced relatively few questions about the new $5 to $7.5 billion cost estimate, which is primarily blamed on inflation and workforce shortages.
On one level, this isn’t surprising since lawmakers are getting updates about how cost increases are impacting all sectors of state government, large construction projects perhaps most of all. But it raises the question of whether there’s any cost estimate that would lead to lawmakers calling for a significant reassessment. Much of the conversation Monday centered on a relatively small element: how long term operations and maintenance for the extension of the proposed TriMet light rail line into Vancouver will be funded.
On one side, Washington Senator Lynda Wilson (WA-17) pushed back on light rail ridership projections made by the project in what appeared to be an attempt to pick apart the transit expense. “I think this is pie in the sky in order to justify having light rail come over this bridge,” Wilson said.
But she received pushback from IBR Program Administrator Greg Johnson over light rail’s inclusion in the project. “We know the highway mode can’t continue to be the only mode in this corridor,” he countered.
Oregon Representative Khanh Pham (OR-46) repeatedly brought up the issue of light rail operating costs, pointing to a need to identify long-term funding to qualify for federal transit grants. All of the dollars that have been secured for the project so far are one-time capital costs, including $1 billion allocated by Washington that’s expected to be matched dollar-for-dollar by Oregon in 2023.
With the departure of Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty from the city council later this month, Pham will likely become the highest-profile elected official on the project’s advisory boards with an inclination toward questioning some of its baseline assumptions. Pham told the project team she was concerned with the latest cost increase announcement, bringing up the potential for costs to come in even higher than the upper estimates. She pointed to the I-5 Rose Quarter project in Portland, now projected to cost more than $1.25 billion compared to the original $500 to $700 million estimate.
Pham suggested that if the project were “right sized” to include only the replacement of the Columbia River bridge and the extension of MAX service, transportation dollars could be freed up for badly needed projects, like improvements to “orphan highways” like Tualatin Valley Highway.
Now that the Interstate Bridge project has been given the go-ahead by every area government and agency, those involved appear to be more comfortable admitting the project is much more than a “bridge replacement”, despite the name. The legislators saw a graphic (above) depicting all of the interchanges in the project area, clearly demonstrating the immense scope of the project. “People focus on the cost of the bridge, but a lot of the cost is not the bridge, but it’s things that make the freeway work,” committee co-chair Senator Lee Beyer (OR-6) said after years of project team obfuscation about that exact issue.
During the meeting, Johnson noted that the planned enormous interchange at Portland’s Marine Drive would likely be the second most expensive element of the project behind the river crossing. But Assistant Program Administrator Ray Mabey couldn’t answer a question from Rep. Pham about how easy to use the interchange would be for people who are trying to access the multi-use path across the river.
So far, it looks like even a 50% increase in potential costs isn’t enough to break the stride of this mega-project as they continue to eye a 2025 start date for construction. In part, those cost increases are justifying that timeline, with legislators told that any additional delay could cause those costs to go up even more. Oregon and Washington residents are going to be paying those costs no matter what.
And many of them will not be happy. Of the 20 or so people who spoke up during the public comment period today, all were opposed to the cost and scope of this project. Most of those who testified were representing Just Crossing Alliance, a coalition group that wants to right-size the project.
Cassie Wilson with Sunrise Movement Rural Oregon said, “We want this crossing to prioritize climate goals, clean air, and connected communities, and that means public transit needs to be at the center of this project. Do away with the rebuilt interchanges and additional lanes and you’ll also be doing away with a huge chunk of the cost, as well as emissions.”
And Portlander Michelle DuBarry with Families for Safe Streets shared the story of her son being killed just a few blocks from I-5. “What good is a shiny new bridge when our kids can’t safely cross the street in our neighborhoods?” she asked lawmakers.
To learn more, browse the presentation shared with lawmakers today: