Jun 29, 2023 - News

New I-5 bridge takes a billion-dollar step

A bridge with two lift towers against a dramatic sky.

The I-5 bridge as seen from Vancouver's waterfront. Photo: Melissa Santos/Axios

In the last few days of Oregon's legislative session, lawmakers authorized paying $1 billion over the next eight years toward replacing the I-5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver — using a funding method Gov. Tina Kotek initially opposed.

Why it matters: Legislative approval means the project to replace the congested bridge may finally go forward after years of controversy and disputes — and a previous failed attempt to replace it.

The intrigue: Using revenues from the state's general fund to pay back bonds to fund the bridge potentially competes with other needs such as schools and housing.

Yes, but: Oregon was under pressure to show a tangible commitment to funding — following the Washington Legislature taking similar action last year — so the two states can seek grant money from the federal government.

What they're saying: Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, who sits on the Legislature's Joint Transportation Committee, told Axios she was surprised to see the money come from the general fund.

  • "It's really, really rare and pretty unprecedented for Oregon to pay for our transportation infrastructure out of our general fund," Pham said.
  • She was one of a handful of lawmakers to vote against the bill.

Meanwhile, Kotek told journalists Wednesday that she was "comfortable with where we are in our funding commitment for the bridge" and that "there will be more conversations on the bridge," including the best funding sources.

Context: The total cost is expected to come in between $5 and $7.5 billion, according to Greg Johnson, the program administrator managing the bridge replacement project.

  • With Oregon's $1 billion added to Washington's, the project will now seek federal grants of up to $3 billion.
  • Tolls are also planned to raise at least another billion dollars for the bridge.

The big picture: What the bridge might look like and the size of the project — which currently includes rebuilding seven interchanges within several miles of the bridge and potentially widening the bridge significantly — are still hot-button issues.

  • "Engineers see this as a transportation problem that can be solved with wider roads," economist Joe Cortright, a critic of the project, told Axios.
  • It will include transit connecting Portland and Vancouver, and an improved path for pedestrians and bikers.

What's next: Federal grants may be awarded as early as next January, and if the project continues, construction could start the year after that.

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