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Cantwell: I-5 Bridge project poised for federal aid

UPDATED: Thu., April 14, 2022

Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., listens to testimony from FAA Administrator Steve Dickson during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Nov. 3 at the U.S. Capitol.  (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)
Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., listens to testimony from FAA Administrator Steve Dickson during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Nov. 3 at the U.S. Capitol. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades)
By Lauren Ellenbecker The Columbian

The multiyear project addressing the Interstate 5 Bridge’s old bones may receive much-needed federal funding once stakeholders come to an agreement on its design and operations.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Program staff and community leaders met Wednesday to discuss how the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act could boost the region’s economy while relieving local traffic frustrations.

The $1.2 trillion bill, signed by President Joe Biden in November, included $5 billion for a grant program that would support mega-projects like the I-5 Bridge replacement. Washington and Oregon’s bridge is one of many projects that are deemed critical for generating regional economic benefits, making it eligible for a competitive grant. Qualifying projects must fulfill at least one of the five criteria – the I-5 Bridge fulfills almost all of them.

Cantwell, who sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said the committee wrote the standards for the grant with the I-5 Bridge in mind.

“It just so happens that this project meets practically all of the criteria that is laid out in the program,” the Washington Democrat said. “Let’s get busy on applying to this specific program.”

Now, the region must tie up loose ends on environmental elements, conditions and funding issues. With 10 partners including the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation, ports and other groups, the endeavor is complicated.

“It’s a complex project and, in order for it to be successful, we must have regional alignment around the ideas before we can go to Washington, D.C., to ask for money,” said Greg Johnson, bridge replacement program administrator.

The city of Vancouver and its partners also can apply for the U.S. Department of Transportation bridge investment program, which also was included in the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill. The conditions for the federal funds will be released in May; the I-5 Bridge appears to qualify for the money based on what is generally outlined in the legislation.

Another $1 billion, secured by the Washington Legislature, will also be directed to the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program.

Economic, commuter benefits

As a link between commuters and their jobs, the I-5 Bridge holds great importance for residents in the region. Moreover, the bridge is a crucial vein for markets, as about $71 million worth of freight crosses the structure daily.

With traffic congestion and bridge lifts frequently delaying the estimated daily 143,000 vehicles, it is one of the nation’s top freight and commerce bottlenecks. A simple fender-bender can gridlock traffic for hours.

Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle asserted that the I-5 Bridge replacement is a key component of Southwest Washington’s labor market, as more than 70,000 Clark County residents commute to Oregon for work.

“Our Washingtonians depend on a safe and effective transportation option and that bridge does not provide that,” she said.

A robust network of manufacturers depends on the Port of Vancouver and the I-5 Bridge to support their operations and send out products, whether it’s wind turbine blades to Eastern Oregon or Subarus throughout the Pacific Northwest. The local economy depends on being able to move products efficiently, said Port of Vancouver CEO Julianna Marler.

Regional growth has only contributed to the congestion on the bridge and throughout the Portland area’s interstate freeways.

Between 2005 and 2019, the average weekday volumes on I-5 showed a 5% increase in general traffic and 28% in freight traffic, Marler said. Interstate 205 saw even more growth: 14% in general traffic and 45% in freight traffic.

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program anticipates revealing its recommended modified locally preferred alternative to the steering committee in early May.

Planners must approve a locally preferred alternative for the program by early June.

Respective councils and agencies will vote on whether to approve the recommendation, with the Vancouver City Council scheduled to authorize a resolution for a project direction on June 27.

Designs are expected to be finalized in mid-2024 and construction is anticipated to begin in 2025.

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