Federal highway officials on Tuesday endorsed an accelerated timeline proposed by Oregon and Washington transportation officials that sets the two states on a fast track toward construction on a new Interstate Bridge by 2025.
Last month, the two states requested a 10-year extension on their timeline to show progress on the bridge project or face repaying nearly $140 million in planning costs tied to the Columbia River Crossing Project. That request would’ve given the states until Sept. 30, 2029, to either start buying up right-of-way or began construction on the I-5 project.
While seeking a decade delay, the states simultaneously suggested a series of aggressive milestones, including reinitiating an environmental review of a proposed project in spring 2020 and starting construction in the summer of 2025.
Travis Brouwer, Oregon’s deputy director for transportation, described the milestones as “highly theoretical,” but also “aspirational” and “reasonable.”
The Federal Highway Administration declined the 10-year extension request but endorsed the aggressive timeline and echoed Brouwer’s assertion. The states now must show considerable progress, including buying up necessary right of way, by the end of September 2024. If the states don’t accomplish that goal, they could owe a collective $140 million to the federal government for planning costs related to the past bridge effort. Oregon’s share is $93.3 million.
“Recognizing the complex nature of the project, including the need to complete on-going consultations on at the federal, state and local levels,” the highway agency wrote, alluding to the political and financial questions surrounding what will likely be a project costing multiple billions of dollars, “FHWA believes it is reasonable for FHWA to grant a time extension.’
The letter is the latest indication that the I-5 bridge project is going to be a top priority in coming years. Oregon’s Transportation Commission approved a plan to funnel $9 million in excess federal money last month to dive back into the project.
“We think five years is enough time for us to move forward on the project,” said Thomas Fuller, an Oregon Department of Transportation spokesman, “and we appreciate FHWA’s patience while we reengage with our partners for this much needed bridge.”
Federal officials note that the government first gave Washington money for the project in 2004 and Oregon financing in 2007.
The highway department determined the states’ extension request was “reasonable” given that both states have been taking “meaningful steps” to restart the process.
Washington this year agreed to pay $35 million to start a new project office.
Oregon’s transportation commission recently named Kris Strickler, a veteran transportation official who previously directed the joint state bridge office, as the state’s next transportation director. Strickler must be confirmed by the Oregon Senate, which is expected to vote on his appointment in November.