UPDATE • Monday morning announcement could help project get $1.3 billion in federal money
by: Jaime Valdez Govs. John Kitzhaber, left, and Chris Gregoire leave a press conference Monday morning outlining their plans to replace the aging Interstate 5 bridge (in the background).

Oregon and Washington governors said Monday morning that the new Interstate 5 bridge will be a composite-deck truss structure that will break ground in 2013.

The decision pushes the massive public works project ahead, allowing it to be delivered on schedule.

'Our decision today is a strategic commitment to make transportation investments that reflect the realities of the future, not the past,' said Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber. 'Moving this project to completion in the most cost effective way possible is critical to providing a safer, less congested transportation system.'

'Our timing is important - we are seeking nearly $1.3 billion in federal funding for this project. We must secure a federal Record of Decision on our design this year to ensure the best chance of receiving full funding,' said Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire.

The decision was applauded by business and labor leaders who attended the press conference at the Jantzen Beach Red Lion, including Portland Business Alliance CEO and President Sandra McDonough.

"Today's announcement is an important step forward for the Columbia River Crossing Project,' McDonough said. 'The project teams have done a great job of identifying the best path forward on a complex project to balance cost, design and function. This decision moves us forward and gives us the best opportunity to secure significant federal funding to address one of the most pressing transportation needs in the bi-state region.

The decision makes the new Columbia River Crossing similar to the Glenn Jackson Interstate 205 Bridge.

Independent experts appointed to study the project have long said the composite-deck truss is the only bridge type that would accomplish that.

In February 2010, Tom Warne, chairman of the Independent Bridge Review Panel appointed by the governors, said that additional, time-consuming environmental studies would not be required if the composite-deck truss type was chosen. A year later, the panel issued a report saying the composite-deck truss was the most affordable type of bridge to be constructed over the Columbia River.

The issue arose after the panel found the original bridge type was too experimental and potential expensive. It rejected the open-web box girder that had been proposed by project staff.

At the time, the panel recommended studying three potential replacements - the composite-deck truss and two more ornate bridge types, a cable-stay and a tied-arch. The panel's February report said the composite-deck truss type was up to $100 million less than the other two options. The panel estimated its cost at about $340 million, compared to around $400 million for the cable-stay and about $430 million for the tied-arch.

The cable-stay type is favored by those who want a more attractive bridge connecting Portland and Vancouver, Wash. They include Mayor Sam Adams and the project's Urban Design Advisory Group, which argues that the cable-stay type has the most public support. The heads of the Oregon and Washington transportation departments both recommended the composite-deck truss type, however, saying time and money were their top priorities.

Opposition to tolls

The Columbia River Crossing is the largest and most expensive transportation project ever proposed in the region. It is intended to reduce congestion and improve safety in a five-mile stretch of I-5 that includes the current bridge between Portland and Vancouver and a number of freeway interchanges. After years of study, bi-state advisory panel recommended a single replacement bridge that would carry motor vehicles, a new light-rail line and provide improved access for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The panel also recommended bringing the interchanges up to federal transportation standards to reduce accidents and improve freight mobility.

The project was originally estimated at up to $4.2 billion, then reduced to around $3.8 billion after several cost-cutting recommendations were adopted. It is not yet clear how changing the bridge type will affect the budget.

The project has been controversial from the start. It is supported by business and labor organizations, but opposed by environmentalists and neighborhood organizations who argue it will encourage more driving and pollution.

The financial plan for the project is also controversial. Although the federal government is expected to pay a large share of it, crossing tolls will have to be imposed to raise part of the local match. Many Clark County residents who work in Oregon oppose the tolls, arguing that they will increase their commute costs.

The project has been tentatively approved by the Portland and Vancouver city councils, along with Metro, the elected regional government that must approve all major transportation projects.

Metro will need to approve the final version, however.

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