Oregon, Washington must restart Interstate Bridge project or owe feds $140 million

The Interstate Bridge between Oregon and Washington opened in 1917.

Oregon and Washington must restart a project to rebuild the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River soon or they'll owe the federal government $140 million.

That's according to a new report from Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson who calls the plan to overhaul the bridge a failure.

The Interstate Bridge was just ranked the worst traffic bottleneck in Washington and the 29th worst bottleneck in the country by the American Transportation Research Institute, which uses GPS data from truckers.

The bridge opened in 1917 and since then traffic on it has increased tremendously.

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Tom Fuller, the communications manager for Oregon's Department of Transportation (ODOT), told KATU Wednesday that around 135,000 vehicles go over it daily.

"That's maximum," Fuller said. "No matter what you do, you can't put more vehicles on that bridge. So that means as economic development increases the population in the vehicle traffic on the road, it's just going to back the traffic north and south even further because it's a very narrow sort of pathway for all those vehicles to go through."

And Fuller said there are other problems.

"There's a huge risk of course in any kind of a large earthquake that bridge is going to come tumbling down," he explained, "and it will block the Columbia River, so you won't be able to use it with a boat and you won't be able to cross it in a vehicle."

Richardson says nearly $200 million and 10 years were spent on a plan to rebuild the the bridge. It's called the Columbia River Crossing project. It died in 2014 after Washington lawmakers decided not to pay for their state's share of the costs, which Fuller said are high.

"It's going to be hundreds of millions of dollars for sure. It's a giant project," he told a KATU reporter. "But the economic benefits are also huge."

In Richardson's new report he says Oregon and Washington will have to pay about $140 million to the federal government if they don't restart the project by September.

Fuller said Oregon's share of that bill is $93 million, but he's optimistic the state won't have to pay it.

"We have had some really good signs from the governor's office in Washington state, from legislative discussions in Washington state that they are really serious about moving this project forward," Fuller explained. "With a reinvented, invigorated sort of bi-state project office, we can begin to move forward from where we left off and hopefully move this thing real quickly."

A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Washington, sent KATU the following statement:

"Replacing the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River remains a high priority for the governor and the state of Washington. It’s a major seismic risk and a traffic bottleneck for the region and the entire nation. Governors Inslee and (Gov. Kate) Brown (D-Oregon) have worked to align their states for a restart of the project, and leaders in both Washington and Oregon have expressed interest in coming back to the table. Governor Inslee included $17.5 million in his transportation budget to reopen an office for the I-5 bridge project, and he encourages lawmakers to join him in advancing a bi-state effort that moves this critical project forward and avoids the need to repay the federal government for past work."

Fuller described the $17.5 million Inslee set aside in his proposed budget as seed money to restart the project. Washington lawmakers have until the end of their legislative session in the third week of April to approve it.

Washington State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, called Richardson's report a welcome, cross-state sign of support. She sent KATU a statement saying in part:

“Everyone knows we need a new I-5 bridge. Secretary Richardson’s clear, forward-looking support from across the border today will help transform that need into continued action.”

Gov. Kate Brown's office did not immediately respond to an email sent Wednesday afternoon seeking comment.

Kimberly Pincheira, the communications manager for the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), sent KATU a statement saying in part:

"We have not yet had a chance to review the report, but we certainly appreciate the interest in identifying best practices that could be helpful if a future project is funded. Any future project would require bi-state discussion and collaboration, and we look forward to restarting conversations with regional partners and stakeholders at such time as a project office for an I-5 bridge replacement project can be reopened."

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