Bi-state Bridge Committee discuss $2 billion funding shortage in ‘conceptual’ funding plan for replacement Interstate Bridge

Committee members will also be looking at preliminary river crossing alternatives

Tuesday afternoon, the 16 members of the Oregon and Washington legislature’s Bi-state Bridge Replacement Committee met via Zoom to discuss issues related to the replacement of the Interstate Bridge. While they were updated on plans for community outreach, the critical discussion was about the Conceptual Finance Plan (CFP) they were briefed on. Clark County Today reported on that Tuesday.

It was emphasized several times that these numbers were only based on the details contained in the previous Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, and that there was “no plan” at this specific time. Rep. Brandon Vick (Washington’s 18th District) mentioned that the past project had a lot of “extras” contained in it. He wanted to know if these numbers also contained those elements. The staff confirmed they were, as this was simply an adjustment to the 2012 plan numbers.

Greg Johnson, the Interstate Bridge Replacement Project (IBRP) administrator, and his team of consultants laid out a timeline for the next four years. There will be two community-based committees created in the spring to allow for citizen input; a Citizens Advisory Group and an Equity Committee. 

Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson shares the numerous groups providing input and direction to his team regarding the project. Graphic from TVW video
Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Administrator Greg Johnson shares the numerous groups providing input and direction to his team regarding the project. Graphic from TVW video

By May, they expect to have a revised “Purpose and Need” statement for the project. “Updating the Purpose and Need is key, because once again, every recommendation and thought will get compared to Purpose and Need, and vision and values that have been established,” said Johnson.

He mentioned that the IBRP team was supposed to bring a new Purpose and Need statement, as well as  “Vision and Values” statement for this meeting. They decided to step back and take a little more time in order to give the two community-based groups time to be formed and to provide input.

In June, Johnson expects the committee to dive into one of the more controversial issues — transit. “That’s the need, the desire, the vision to see transit, crossing the Columbia River associated with this bridge replacement,” Johnson said.

They also will be looking at preliminary river crossing alternatives. Johnson said they are being hit with ideas for immersed tube tunnels or different bridge types.  “We hope to pare those ideas down and start presenting you with a smaller universe of ideas for how we can cross the river,” he said.

In late summer and the fall, Johnson said the IBRP team will look for guidance from the legislators on which transit alternative they prefer, which type of bridges they prefer, and what direction they want to go regarding finance plans. They also have a window of late 2023 to early 2024, to have a Record of Decision from the Federal Highway Administration.

Sen. Lee Beyer (Oregon’s 6th District) stated he believed the major problem of the project will be “an inability to fund the project.” He therefore wanted to know if the IBRP team could accelerate the effort if, by some luck, the federal government passed a funding package. 

Johnson responded saying they would be open to opportunities for any funding, but they can’t rush. “We have to get through this environmental process without cutting corners,” he said. “Because if we do cut corners, the folks who are hurt or adverse to this, will be lined up to knock us back to square one. We don’t want to have to repeat steps.”

“There are some folks who have already thrown out criticisms that this is just CRC 2.0,” he said. “We’re not looking to give fuel to that fire.”

The problems that were identified in the CRC’s Purpose and Need have not gone away, according to Johnson. “We’re not saying that that is what the Purpose of Need is going to be; but it is a great start for understanding what some of the challenges that exist for the IBR program,” he said.

With all the different groups providing input, Vick asked “what happens if there’s not consensus right now or consensus within a budget we can afford?”

Johnson responded saying he has a background in dispute resolution, and in finding common ground. He expects to use that skill set. “I have a great deal of confidence that folks want this thing to move forward,” he said. “We will find that way to make it happen.”

The IBRP team expects to have their own project website up and running in January, so people can go to one location to find all the relevant information about the project and the efforts underway. They also expect to prepare white papers on key issues and a set of FAQs.

The staff said it was very critical that they’re demonstrating accountability and being transparent along the way. They want to develop an accountability plan for considering public feedback. “It is critical that we establish that credibility with the public, and really start to build that trust,” said an IBRP staffer.

Next week the IBRP team will launch the application process for the Community Advisory Group and the Equity Advisory Group. As part of their community outreach, those applications will be offered in six different languages.

The conceptual finance plan is based on previous design assumptions from the CRC. “We don’t have new design assumptions yet,” said Ray Mabey, assistant program administrator. They have to develop the Purpose of Need and design alternatives for the project.

The timeline for the next year in the process. The critical dates will be March and May regarding the “Purpose and Need” statement, defining the problem. Graphic from IBRP team
The timeline for the next year in the process. The critical dates will be March and May regarding the “Purpose and Need” statement, defining the problem. Graphic from IBRP team

“The conceptual finance plan is based on the existing input from the previous CRC design effort, which included high capacity transit options,” he said. ”All these assumptions capitalize on existing work. It doesn’t mean the IBR will have the same outcomes as CRC. The IBR process will develop new or revised designs with commensurate estimates that will need to be factored into future finance planning. These costs will be refined as planning and design progresses.”

All four funding scenarios include a replacement bridge with high capacity transit in its own fixed guideway, separated from other vehicles.

The four scenarios included estimates in 2012 dollars, 2020 dollars and a “year of expenditure” estimate which Brent Baker, Finance Structures lead, said was calculated to account for projected inflation assuming the bridge started construction in 2025 and opened by 2030.

Funding was the biggest problem with a $1.8 to $2.3 billion shortfall. Tolling is expected to be part of any project. In the CRC, pre-construction tolling was considered; but that is not an option with the current time frame. They said a public-private partnership (P3) was also a possibility to be considered. The staff also said taking a “phased approach” was an option, reducing initial costs, but likely increasing the overall cost.

Baker pointed out that the light rail transit (LRT) and bus rapid transit (BRT) cost estimates are somewhat similar, because the prior work assumed that BRT would operate with high frequency and capacity in its own right of way, very similar to LRT.

When it came to federal funding, three Washington state projects were shown. Of note was the 520 bridge across Lake Washington. That project relied on Garvey bonds, which is “borrowing against future federal aid apportionments and then paying it back with those apportionments over time,” explained Baker.

A great deal of discussion ensued after Mabey closed the presentation. “We’ve got an estimated funding gap in the conceptual finance plan of $1.8 to $2.3 billion in year of expenditure dollars.”

Sen. Beyer sought to clarify the funding gap in 2012 and how much each state would be obligated to fund in the current discussions. “I’m trying to do a comparison,” he said. “And the comparison is with what we thought what people thought the gap was in 2012 when those initial numbers were put together and what it is now.” He mentioned the $450 million each state would have contributed to the CRC project.

Mabey began his response by saying they would need an updated traffic and revenue analysis (for tolling revenue calculations). He also emphasized that because it’s eight years later, costs have gone up. He also mentioned that there were adjustments to federal transit dollars for today’s reality, which was a range of $250 million to $930 million.

That wasn’t the response Beyer was seeking, so he asked again. “If I was to put together a number for a transportation revenue package this session that would fairly represent Washington’s share, what would it be? I wouldn’t want to use the old number, because things have changed.”

The conceptual finance plan shows a shortfall of $1.8 billion to $2.3 billion for the four options shown. The numbers are based on the 2012 CRC plan. Two have light rail and two have bus rapid transit as part of the project. Graphic from IBRP team
The conceptual finance plan shows a shortfall of $1.8 billion to $2.3 billion for the four options shown. The numbers are based on the 2012 CRC plan. Two have light rail and two have bus rapid transit as part of the project. Graphic from IBRP team

“We may not get a transportation package. But in order to inform people about what we might be looking for, or a state contribution for this project, it would be helpful to have that. If 450 is no longer the right number . . . it would be helpful to me to know what that (higher number) is.”

Mabey responded by restating it is a conceptual finance plan based on the old CRC. “The conceptual finance plan we have here indicates that each state would need to provide between $750 million to $1 billion of funds to construct a program unless other additional sources of funding are identified,” he said.

“We want to be very careful and be respectful of the remainder of the DOT budgets in both states,” said Johnson. “We do not want to become the villain in taking dollars from other DOT purposes for our program. I recognize there is only a limited amount of dollars. So consultation with the leadership of both DOT’s would be critical before we can hone in on that final number. I think the range that Mr. Mabey provided is an outstanding range. But we would most definitely consult with both DOT’s before we would bring you a final number that says yeah, this is what we need.” 

Sen. Ann Rivers (Washington’s 18th District) weighed in. “I want to emphasize that this is only conceptual because we don’t have a project; we don’t know if we’re going to actually need to purchase any right of way. We don’t know the design. This is really to me, almost putting the cart before the horse because there are so many unknowns.”

“It’s just really to highlight that there are so many unknowns that to talk about money at this point, seems extraordinarily difficult,” she said. Rivers mentioned in the Connecting Washington program, (2015 gas tax), they eliminated the sales tax on the construction projects for cost savings. She anticipates that could be done for this project as well. 

“But it (the presentation) left me with just sort of feeling a little bit empty about it all, because we don’t really have anything that we can that we can attach numbers to,” she said.

Beyer shared with the committee that Oregon had set aside their $450 million for the previous project in 2012. “That money is gone now,” he said. They have since passed their 2017 transportation package. “So the question, kind of what I started out with my first question today is, where’s the money going to come from?

“We had a big commitment back then with money to have this,” he said. “How did the Undersecretary for Transportation describe it to me? He said, we are assuming we are funding a transit bridge and we’re going to allow cars and trucks to drive over it, because the money was coming from the transit side. 

“I hope that there’s some of that still available. But my hope is, we’re going to get this project off the ground and that there’s a major infusion of federal funds. Without that, I’m not sure how to do it.”

Johnson shared the perspective that in a variety of projects around the nation, federal dollars have been in decline and that local funding has picked up a larger share. “The reality is projects of this size always include some element of self funding, such as tolling,” he said.

Sen. Lynda Wilson (Washington’s 17th District) asked what would happen to the existing C-TRAN express bus service with regards to this project. “In our conversations with C-TRAN, there is no desire or thought that that service would end,” responded Johnson. 

That might be a surprise to some, as the C-TRAN express bus ridership has been in decline for many years. At the October meeting, Rep. Vicki Kraft (Washington’s 17th District) asked the committee members what many citizens believe is a very appropriate question: “I would ask the question, what is the need for transit?“ C-TRAN shared that average daily ridership was 1,213 boardings, (or 607 people round trip) from January through the end of August.

Rep. Sharon Wylie (Washington’s 49th District) sought to reframe the funding discussion. “Is it possible that we need to describe this piece differently to reflect what it really is? It’s kind of a future placeholder that is an estimate that gives an idea of the range of sources that we would have available to us at some point. Maybe if we could frame it that way, we could still have it there as a reminder, and as a representation of the range of things that we have to think about, but not pin it down,” she said.

Mabey responded by saying: “I’m an engineer and the words I like to use, it’s a rough order of magnitude. It helps inform our future planning around sources and uses and potential funding needs.”

Sen. Beyer closed out the funding discussion. It was important for him to have a number to start the discussion with, so they could react to it. “That’s too high,” he said. “Our reaction gives direction to the engineers to bring the number down.”

“What we may be learning and talking about today is that we can’t afford that,” he said. “We have to have something less than that, if we’re going to get going.”

Beyer emphasized the need for tolling. “The only bridge across the Columbia that wasn’t built with tolling was the (Glenn) Jackson bridge. The question is, what will the traffic bear? How much can tolling be a part of it reasonably?”

The next meeting of the committee will be in December, with three more in March, May, and June on their tentative schedule.