How will the IBR pay for the MAX light rail extension?

The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program estimates it will receive nearly $6 billion for the project from a variety of sources. $1.1 billion from Washington, $1 billion from Oregon, $2.5 billion from federal sources, and $1.2 billion from tolling. Graphic courtesy IBR

Washington to pay $150 million towards IBR light rail extension

John Ley
For Clark County Today

The Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program has chosen a 3-mile extension of TriMet’s MAX Yellow line light rail as its high capacity transit option for the project. The IBR estimate is that the cost will be between $1.3 billion and $1.99 billion. How will they pay for this?

The March 2023 finance plan released by the IBR indicates Washington citizens will contribute 15 percent or $150 million of the $1 billion the Washington State Legislature allocated. The plan also requires Oregon to contribute a similar 15 percent towards the cost of the MAX light rail extension.

Previously revealed information breaks down the cost of the $5 billion to $7.5 billion project into four major subgroups:

  • The bridge will cost $500 million, with the total bridge replacement and approaches costing between $1.64 to $2.45 billion. 
  • Light rail, labeled as “Transit Investments” is the second largest cost at $1.32 to $1.99 billion. 
  • Washington interchanges and roadways will cost between $990 million to $1.49 billion. 
  • Oregon roadways and interchanges will cost between $1.05 billion and $1.57 billion, approximately $100 million more than Washington state’s interchanges.
The federal government requires 15 percent of transit funding come from local sources. The IBR estimates $300 million of the $2 billion light rail cost would come from both states. If federal contributions are lower than expected, the state's contribution would increase. Graphic courtesy of IBR

IBR Administrator Greg Johnson has told the program’s Executive Steering Group that federal dollars are usually the last money committed. Local money must be committed to a project first before the federal government will agree to commit funds to a project.

The entire project is often viewed as one big bucket of money. The IBR updated initial cost estimates last December. The new cost range for the project will range between $5 billion and $7.5 billion, with a “likely” cost of $6 billion. The $2.5 billion variance exceeds the cost of the light rail extension.

To pay for the transit component, the IBR hopes to get $1 billion from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA). The FTA’s Capital Investment Grant will contribute funds up to a maximum of 60 percent of a transit project cost. That means the two states would potentially have to contribute $530 million to $800 million for transit. The IBR’s financial plan hopes to begin receiving federal funding in Fiscal Year 2028 through 2033.

Tolling revenues are expected to contribute $266 million in pre-construction tolling beginning in 2026. The IBR will go to Wall Street and borrow an additional $972 million in FY 2030-31. Tolling revenues will pay back those borrowed funds.

The finance plans show transit costing a total of $1.834 billion of a $6 billion project. Furthermore, page 27 states:

”It is possible that some of the Oregon funding contribution may be sourced from state highway funds, which are restricted by the state constitution and are disallowed from being used for most transit-related expenditures or projects. The 2023 IBR financial plan identifies at least $300 million (15%) of the combined $2 billion contribution from both states that needs to be eligible for transit expenditures. This would offer the IBR program the flexibility needed to meet the matching requirements of the three major federal grant programs that the IBR program plans to be applying for in 2023.’’

A footnote states: “The $300 million of transit eligible state funding assumes that the program receives a $500 million USDOT Mega grant and a $1 billion FTA CIG award; a lesser amount from either of these grant programs would require a larger share of transit eligible state funding.”

The IBR lists costs of the four major components of the project. The bridge itself is $500 million, with approaches bringing the total cost up to $2.45 billion. The MAX light rail extension would cost up to $1.99 billion. Washington interchanges would cost up to $1.49 billion and Oregon interchanges up to $1.57 billion. Graphic courtesy of IBR.

The Oregon State Legislature is in the final two weeks of their regular session which ends June 25th. Thirteen Republican and independent senators have walked away, denying a quorum in the state senate. It is therefore unlikely the Oregon legislature will pass legislation allocating the needed $1 billion in funding for the IBR. 

As the IBR noted, Oregon state highway funds are restricted by the state constitution and disallowed from being used for most transit projects. However, Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) officials believe tolling revenue, while generally for roads and bridges, can be used for some parts of light rail.

An August 2020 ODOT tolling presentation by Travis Brouwer included the following. “Construction of shared-purpose lanes that include light rail — although the cost of light rail only improvements within the lane (such as the rail itself) would not be eligible to be paid with State Highway Fund dollars.” This would include paying for transit stops and transit stations.

During the Columbia River Crossing debate a decade ago, some studies estimated Southwest Washington citizens could be paying up to 60 percent of bridge tolls. With Oregon officials hoping to create a “per mile” toll via their Regional Mobility Pricing Program, this would take additional money from over 75,000 Clark County citizens who commute to Oregon for work. 

Portland economist Joe Cortright has reported that the double tolls could cost as much as $14 to $15 dollars each way to travel from Vancouver to Wilsonville. There would be one toll for using bridges – the Interstate Bridge on I-5, or the Abernethy and Tualatin bridges on I-205. Then there would be a separate “per mile” charge to drive each interstate.

The potential exists that $150 million is merely the beginning of Washington citizen’s money used to pay for light rail and other Oregon transit components.

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