Columbia River I-5 bridge replacement cost estimate jumps to $7.5B

The long-planned bistate project to replace the aging Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River between Vancouver, Washington and Portland, Oregon is expected to cost between $5 billion and $7.5 billion, new project estimates show.

The 2020 cost estimate was pegged at $3.2 billion to $4.8 billion based on a previous iteration of the mega project.

The current state of the economy – including record-breaking inflation and supply chain snafus – contributed to the increased cost estimate.

“We’re in a time where we see really high inflation rates right now,” said Frank Green, assistant program administrator for the Interstate Bridge Replacement project, at Monday morning’s virtual meeting of the Joint Oregon-Washington Legislative Action Committee. “And in the construction industry we also see, you know, a lack of workforce in some areas, as well as – there will be with this program specifically – there will likely be a lot of competition with other regional construction projects here in the Portland metro area as well as the Pacific Northwest.”

He went on to explain, “We also know that within the construction industry, material costs have increased and that there’s global supply chain issues and market conditions that have affected the number.”

A $6 billion cost is the likeliest outcome, Green noted.

The higher price tag also reflects the modified locally preferred alternative of the project that was endorsed by eight government boards earlier this year that includes a bridge over the river with three through-traffic lanes, an additional auxiliary merge lane in each direction, a light-rail link to Vancouver, and a separate span for local traffic from North Portland to Hayden Island, one of four major islands in the Portland metro area.

Much of the funding is coming from state coffers in Washington and Oregon.

The IBR project team has already secured $100 million from those two governments, as well as an additional $1.1 billion from the Washington State Legislature via the “Move Ahead Washington” transportation package.

“So, we have about $1.2 billion that’s already been secured,” Brent Baker, IBR financial structures lead, summarized. “And I think we’re all aware the Oregon Legislature is considering $1 billion to complement Washington’s funding from earlier this year.”

The Oregon Legislature is expected to match Washington’s contribution during its upcoming legislative session.

Another big chunk – $1.2 billion to $1.6 billion – is expected to be brought in directly from drivers when they pay tolls on the new bridge.

And then there is $1.7 billion to $2.7 billion in federal funding being looked into, Baker said, noting “the feds have shown very keen interest in this project.”

“All told, we’ve got a funding range that’s about $5.2 to $6.5 billion that has been identified as kind of our range,” he explained.

Referring to economic impact analysis, Baker was optimistic about the project in light of the sticker shock some may be experiencing.

Assuming a $6 billion cost, he said, “And the effect on total regional economic activity is almost double that in terms of $12 billion over the life of the construction program.”

According to information presented at the meeting, total gross economic activity of the project is estimated at $11.7 billion, with a minimum net new employment of 14,400 people.

This is the second attempt at getting a new bridge built over the Columbia River.

In 2013, the Columbia River Crossing, as the project was known at the time, was done in by the Washington State Senate’s failure to advance a $450 million transportation package that was expected to contribute to the project. Oregon had already signed off on the project, but Washington’s support was required to make it happen.

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