Joining Forces

Feb. 1, 2024
Oregon and Washington team up to transform corridor

By Greg Johnson, Contributing Author

The Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) program is about much more than concrete and steel. This bi-state program led by the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), in collaboration with regional and federal partner agencies, is focused on building a seismically resilient multimodal transportation corridor across the Columbia River.

The goal is to connect Oregon and Washington via the Interstate-5 corridor. More than a mega project intended to withstand the test of time, the IBR program is working – and succeeding – in bringing people and places closer together, while fostering equity and accessibility across state lines.

The IBR program draws upon years of past work, primarily from a previous bi-state planning effort called the Columbia River Crossing that was suspended a decade ago. Recognizing the need to replace the century-old Interstate Bridge has become more acute, the governors and legislators in each state directed ODOT and WSDOT to launch the IBR program in 2019.

Few question the need for the program. With the original span dating back to 1917, and the second span opening in 1958, the Interstate Bridge is built on wood piles in sandy soil, making it vulnerable to failure in the event of an earthquake. Both spans are considered functionally obsolete by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Furthermore, the bridge and the area around it experience crash rates over three times higher than statewide averages for comparable structures. This can be attributed to the seven closely spaced interchanges in the 5-mile program area, narrow lanes, lack of safety shoulders and bridge lifts that occur an average of approximately 300 times per year.

Program Priorities

The IBR is focused on climate issues and equity – in process and outcome. With this as our bedrock, we are examining our current work through the lens of priority communities: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), people with disabilities, communities with limited English proficiency, lower income and houseless individuals and families, immigrants and refugees, young people (25 and under) and older adults (65 and older).

As we center equity, the needs of each state must also be considered and equally addressed. This means bi-state cooperation is essential in everything from community engagement to design and engineering, to workforce development and the eventual construction of the roughly $6 billion program.

Listening and Cooperating

Listening starts at the top. As program administrator, I oversee the IBR program and represent both state DOTs. This sets the tone for how the program is run at all levels. Because we have several partners in each state with an interest in this program, one part of my role is to listen and make sure that everyone’s voice is equally represented in how we operate.

This extends to those working alongside me. Assistant program administrators Ray Mabey and Frank Green represent ODOT and WSDOT, respectively. Mabey and Green worked on the previous project and are now using that experience and their keen understanding of the complexities of each state to help the IBR program navigate the many considerations that must be balanced.

This dynamic also extends to the technical disciplines. From structural engineering, to design, transit, environmental, finance and more, the IBR program blends team members from ODOT, WSDOT, transit agencies and private consulting firms all working collaboratively to move the program forward.

Another key part of the success of ensuring feedback and alignment was the creation of a bi-state legislative committee composed of eight legislators from each state who provide ongoing oversight. This group provides legislative direction on key program work and ensures accountability and transparency.

Green credits the existence of the bi-state legislative committee with helping the program meet critical milestones. “The bi-state nature and coordination between the two legislatures requires conversations across state lines that aren’t just ODOT or WSDOT,” he said. “Regular engagement with this committee really has benefited us immensely.”

Our four advisory groups – Executive Steering Group, Community Advisory Group, Equity Advisory Group and Community Benefits Advisory Group – also provide input and guidance. Each group includes balanced representation from each state and members with a broad range of perspectives and lived experience.

The work of these advisory groups has boosted our community engagement and has enhanced feedback from groups that have historically been excluded from transportation mega projects.

Two-Way Engagement

As we work to serve our greater community, we are meeting people where they live to share program updates and learn about their priorities. We continually strive to go above and beyond in these efforts and incorporate good ideas from other projects whenever we can. Our engagement has included presentations to organizations and neighborhood associations, office hours, community briefings, attendance at fairs and festivals, virtual equity roundtables, neighborhood forums, topic-specific conversations and working groups, digital surveys, affinity listening sessions, youth press conferences and much more.

We also utilize several tools to improve accessibility, including a website translation tool in eight languages, closed captioning in English and Spanish, American Sign Language interpreters, survey user testing and 3-D physical models to assist blind and low-vision community members, ADA remediation of materials, incentives for participation for equity priority participants; and work with multilingual community engagement liaisons.

We also offer mini-grants to enlist the help of local community-based organizations that serve equity priority communities. By partnering with these organizations, we can share information, host listening sessions, and have meaningful exchanges that we otherwise would likely not have had.

“This bridge and our program help communities on both sides of the Columbia River recognize the connections that bind us together,” Mabey said. “There are differences in how community members see things, which makes it important for the program to draw in and get that feedback. And that all helps the two communities on either side of the bridge recognize that they are, in fact, one large community.”

Supporting New Jobs

With the ongoing national shortage of labor in the skilled trades, ODOT and WSDOT are committed to a bi-state approach to support labor and provide opportunities for a diverse workforce to grow and thrive.

This is a big task. To put it in perspective, our 2023 Economic Impact Assessment estimates that total employment created or sustained from the IBR program is expected to include approximately 43,300 direct and indirect jobs across multiple industries.

The need to have a reliable, diverse, and highly skilled labor pool along with equitable workforce development is clear. Ensuring there is a diverse workforce means supporting opportunities for minority and women-owned businesses, BIPOC workers, workers with disabilities and young people.

To do this, we are actively engaging Disadvantaged Business Enterprises, as well as contracting organizations, industry and trade groups, and local schools.

We’ve also partnered with workforce development entities in Oregon and Washington to produce a study outlining the regional workforce needs and opportunities.

The workforce study, along with a workforce outreach plan, will help us work with local schools to highlight the benefits of careers in the construction trades, as well as labor unions and training facilities in the region to help ensure we have enough skilled workers for this program.

Dollars and Sense

The regional, national, and international importance of replacing the Interstate Bridge was underscored by President Joe Biden in January 2022, when he framed it as one of “the most economically significant bridge projects in the nation.”

With a projected cost of around $6 billion, continued bi-state collaboration will be essential in securing the federal funding needed to deliver the program.

The program has considerable momentum when you consider the three-legged stool of funding sources needed to construct the program. Oregon and Washington have demonstrated their dedication to this critical effort by committing $1 billion each toward the project.

Furthermore, tolling authorization has been granted by both states that will allow over $1 billion to be raised through tolling of the bridge.

With those commitments in hand, the program is pursuing approximately $2.5 billion in federal grants. We have submitted applications for the U.S. Department of Transportation Mega Grant program and the FHWA Bridge Investment Program. We are also seeking funding through the Federal Transit Administration’s Capital Investment Grant program, which has accepted the IBR program into the project development stage.

Our Goal Line is in Sight

We expect to publish a Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) in the first half of 2024, followed by a 60-day public comment period. This document will compare a Modified Locally Preferred Alternative and a No-Build Alternative.

In addition to the replacement bridge itself, program investments being studied include auxiliary lanes, transit investments, active transportation facilities and interchange improvements. Several design options are also being analyzed, including three potential bridge configurations: a single level, stacked, or movable bridge.

A final SEIS is expected by late 2024 or early 2025, followed by an amended Record of Decision. After that, construction could start in late 2025 or early 2026, with work throughout the five-mile program corridor anticipated to last for over a decade.

The scope of the IBR program is complex and far-reaching. As we redefine our regional transportation landscape with a safer and more accessible multimodal Interstate Bridge and transportation corridor, we are bringing our greater community together.

When complete, the IBR program will be emblematic of a bold statement of bi-state partnership, driven by a shared approach to equity and collaboration. RB

Greg Johnson is the program administrator for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program.