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Bridging the Columbia River: Past, Present, and Future

Bridging the Columbia River: Past, Present, and Future

By Luke Carothers

Spanning over 3,500-feet across the Columbia River where it draws a border between Oregon and Washington, the bridge that now carries I-5 between Vancouver in Washington state and Portland in Oregon first opened to traffic in 1917.  This important piece of infrastructure was incorporated into the newly built Interstate-5, which ran roughly parallel to the West Coast of the United States.  Then a single bridge carrying two-way traffic, the structure was expanded in 1958 when a second twin bridge was built directly adjacent to the original structure.  With the twin bridge structure, each bridge was opened to one-way traffic–northbound traffic being run over the 1917 structure and southbound over the 1958 structure.  As a part of the Interstate Highway System, this transportation corridor expanded in importance and the bridge crossing the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington has come to represent a vital piece of infrastructure when speaking about the continued growth, economic success, and happiness of communities throughout the region.  

In existence for over a century, the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River has become outdated, leading to a number of significant problems that negatively impact those living in surrounding communities.  The lift bridge design is so outdated that there are less than 20 still in service throughout the United States.  Most significantly, perhaps, is the I-5 Bridge’s vulnerability to seismic activity.  The current structure is a lift bridge that rests on timber piles driven into a silty river, which makes it incredibly prone to serious structural damage in the event of an earthquake.  The most likely seismic threat to the structure is the Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is roughly 70 years overdue for a significant movement. 

Because of the bridge’s design–lack of shoulders, lifts, and closely spaced interchanges–it is currently one of the highest crash locations in Oregon’s interstate system, and averages 7-10 hours of congestion during the morning and evening commutes.  Congestion issues are further exacerbated by the bridge’s location between the Ports of Portland and Vancouver, which added over 13,500 trucks to the number of vehicles that crossed the bridge in 2019.  In this congestion, trucks are joined by a high number of motor vehicles as there are limited high capacity transit options between Portland and Vancouver.  The only alternative means of crossing the bridge is a small walking and biking path on either side of the bridge measuring 3.5-feet in width, which isn’t capable of safely supporting any meaningful amount of foot or bicycle traffic.

Photo Credit: Interstate Bridge Replacement Program

The push to replace this vital piece of infrastructure has been going on for over 25 years.  Hampered by the failure of efforts to update the structure in 2014 when the Washington State Legislature declined to take up the funding package, the bridge’s condition only continued to worsen.  The need to do something about this vulnerable piece of infrastructure was recognized in 2019 when Governor Kate Brown of Oregon and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington agreed to create the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBR).  The goal in creating the IBR program is to replace the Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River with a modern, seismically-resilient multimodal structure that improves mobility for people, goods, and services.  

Greg Johnson explains that equity and the climate are the forefront of the IBR program considerations.  Johnson is the IBR Program Administrator, having joined the project in July of 2020.  For Johnson and the IBR program, the first step to building equity into the program was understanding the history of major transportation construction and development in the region.  The construction of I-5 in the 1950s displaced a number of communities throughout the region, and the reverberating effects of displacing existing communities are still felt to this day.  Johnson says that one of their first acts was to hire a Principal Equity Officer whose main focuses are to assure their processes are appropriate and that the program is reaching out in appropriate ways to “amplify voices that have not been a part of projects like this [and] look at outcomes.”  This includes steps like reaching out to small, minority-, and women-owned businesses who have historically been excluded from similar building projects.  

More than most, Johnson knows the struggle of being displaced–having been displaced from his home at four years old by a Department of Transportation project–and recalls his father’s frustration at not being treated fairly in the process.  This experience informs Johnson’s approach to his work on the IBR program, driving him to always make sure people’s voices are being heard.The IBR program’s focus on equity also includes having a continued Community Advisory Group, which meets monthly to have “substantial conversations…to make sure that they understand where the project is and how their voices can help shape the project.”  By focusing on things like urban design as well as community and contractor outreach, Johnson says the goal is to let the community know that their voices are heard and reflected in the IBR program’s designs.  To engage the community in these processes, the IBR program has shown the community visualizations meant to increase the understanding for what they were proposing and what impacts it would have on the community.  Johnson believes this level of conversation allows people to get a better understanding of what the project will feel like in their community.  Another major area of focus for the IBR program is its sustainability and larger impact on the climate.  With an average of 7-10 hours of congestion during the morning and evening commutes, vehicles spent an outsized amount of time with their engines running and not moving, which significantly increases the amount of greenhouse gasses released into the region’s air and atmosphere.  To assess and improve the project from a sustainability perspective, the IBR program employs a Principal Climate Officer.

Photo Credit: Interstate Bridge Replacement Program

While the vision for a better future for this vital piece of infrastructure is taking shape through discussions about climate and community impact, the IBR program has been working to secure additional funding for the project.  According to Johnson, the first steps to completing the IBR project was securing funding and tolling rights from both Washington and Oregon, which was done earlier this year.  Recently, Washington State passed legislation giving the project $1 billion in 2022, with Oregon doing the same in June of this year.  Johnson says that an additional $1.3 billion is projected in the program’s financial plan.  While both legislatures have authorized tolling, the details of a formal plan have not been developed.  Johnson says the project is around 57 percent of the way towards their goal, and the remaining piece of the funding puzzle is to work with federal partners.   Johnson is confident that the project will be able to secure federal funding through a number of infrastructure grants that are coming out this year.  The program recently submitted its application to the FHWA for a $600 million mega grant, and will submit an application later this Fall for a $1 billion Bridge Investment Program grant.  The IBR program also plans to seek up to $1.2 billion from the FTA for a Capital Improvement Grant that will pay for transit investments.  This confidence stems in large part from the unique nature of the IBR project, which covers several areas of infrastructure and transportation including high capacity transit, freight considerations, and vehicles as well as bicycle and pedestrian traffic.  

As the IBR program continues to secure federal funding, the project moves closer and closer to its ultimate completion, which will significantly improve mobility in the region. Project construction is slated to begin in 2025.