Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Will Likely Use Light Rail

Rick Bannan / [email protected]

The Interstate 5 Aging Bridge Replacement Program is moving closer to a final design, as scenarios currently under consideration will likely use light rail as a transit element.

During meetings on April 21, the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program Executive Steering Group and the Oregon-Washington Joint Legislative Action Committee were briefed by program staff on what the bridge replacement might look like. . Of the two options currently on the table, both will use light rail.

To be eligible for federal funding, a public transit component is required. Light rail, as well as bus rapid transit, were under consideration for this requirement, although staff said the benefits of light rail are greater.

Information presented at the legislative committee meeting showed that light rail options would be eligible for more funding from the Federal Transit Administration’s capital investment grant, although bus rapid transit would cost less overall and that the federal funding would represent a little more proportionally.

IBRP Deputy Program Administrator Frank Green said a preliminary cost estimate shows the replacement would cost between $3.2 billion and $4.8 billion. Along with federal grant opportunities, he said the project will seek state-level funding in 2023. Washington State has already committed $1 billion in funding in the 2022 session of the Legislative Assembly.

Green plans to use the toll to fund the replacement in part to serve as local matching funds for federal grants.

IBRP deputy program director John Willis said research on the project shows there is greater demand for light rail than for bus rapid transit. He noted that in terms of capacity, a two-car train could hold up to 266 passengers, while a bus could hold up to 100.

Although the light rail has a higher capital cost initially, Willis said its maintenance and operating costs over its lifetime will be lower than those of buses.

The light rail was part of the failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project and was part of what derailed that effort in 2013 when the Washington Legislature denied funding. A lot has changed in the years since, Willis explained, leading to a plan that still uses the mode of transportation but with different parameters.

In 2013, Clark County’s transit authority, C-Tran, began using its Vine bus rapid transit system. Vancouver also saw development on its waterfront that the replacement project considered when drafting the transit option.

The replacement project’s light rail line would run north from the Portland Expo Center’s MAX station. A major change for the current light rail option from CRC’s proposal includes aligning the tracks with Interstate 5 past the North Bridge and terminating at Evergreen Boulevard. In the previous project, the line was to cross downtown Vancouver.

C-Tran general manager Shawn Donaghy explained that downtown development since 2013 has made extending light rail there less viable. Donaghy noted that the transit company has a second Vine line under construction, one in the planning stages, and an extension to the existing Fourth Plain Boulevard line.

“By the time we actually build the bridge, our (bus rapid transit) connection will be built. We will be waiting for that connection to Evergreen,” Donaghy said.

Although extending the light rail line as far north as Kiggins Bowl was originally considered, terminating it at Evergreen Boulevard would result in less property impacts. Terminating there would also allow connectivity to Library Square at the corner of C Street and Evergreen Boulevard and nearby city-owned parcels once they are developed.

The difference between the two options considered is the number of auxiliary lanes at the interchanges in the project area. IBRP Administrator Greg Johnson said following the April 21 meetings that project staff would gather feedback from the various steering and advisory groups before coming up with the preferred scenario on May 5.

He said final approval of the executive leadership and bi-state groups would come in mid-July. The option would be thoroughly explored through a federal environmental review. The current goal of the program would be to have a draft review ready in early 2023 for public comment.

Although Johnson stressed that a final decision has not yet been made, Senator Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, a member of the joint committee, felt that “the train has left the station” with the current focus on light rail as a rapid transit solution.

“I feel like we had these discussions, but most of the discussions and decisions weren’t made here in this group,” Wilson said of the process.

Following the April 21 meetings, U.S. Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler criticized the decision to consider only light rail as an option. Herrera Beutler said the current replacement project mirrors the CRC project too closely, particularly because of its emphasis on light rail.

“This decision runs counter to voters in Southwest Washington who have firmly and repeatedly rejected the introduction of Portland light rail into Washington State, as well as the enormous cost, limitations on river traffic and the public safety concerns that come with it,” Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, said in a statement.

Jose P. Rogers