(Salem, OR) — Oregonians and Oregon's economy depend on the outdated and seismically vulnerable Interstate Bridge over the Columbia River. Over forty billion dollars worth of interstate and international commerce crosses the bridge to nearby ports, businesses and distribution facilities. Commerce is increasingly impacted by congestion at a pinch point that is one of the worst spots anywhere between Mexico and Canada. Today, Governor Kitzhaber released the following letter to the Oregon Legislature on the aging Interstate Bridge:
View Signed Letter (PDF)
Dear President Courtney and Speaker Kotek:
Thank you for your continued efforts on the I-5 Replacement Bridge project. Just under a year ago, we joined together to authorize Oregon’s share of the project’s funding and set the stage for the state of Washington to do its part and fund its portion of the project. Unfortunately, they were not able to get their work done under that framework.
After the Washington Legislature failed to act on a transportation package last year, I instructed the Oregon project team to evaluate options in the I-5 bridge project area that would achieve the objectives of reducing congestion, enhancing freight mobility and improving safety—because this is a priority for Oregon. Replacing the bridge and improving the adjacent Oregon interchanges are critical infrastructure investments for the safety of our citizens and the future vitality of our state. Businesses from all over our state rely on this bridge to get their goods to and from market. Yet businesses that haul goods critical to our state’s economic well-being must rely on a bridge that is both seismically at risk and an obsolete design that leads to increased accidents and gridlock in the corridor. For Oregon, there is no viable alternative plan that is less complicated or less expensive.
For over a decade, we have analyzed and planned for the I-5 bridge replacement project. It has consumed more than $180 million (split between Oregon and Washington), substantial local, state and federal resources and thousands of hours of public and community activities. Now the decision of whether to move the project forward is up to the Oregon Legislature and the state of Washington.
The Oregon Legislature has an Oregon-led option ready for consideration in the February session with the critical pieces of information necessary to make an informed decision. I urge you to take the appropriate steps to move the Oregon-led project into the construction phase by reauthorizing the state’s financial commitment and adopting the necessary statutory changes to enhance existing tolling authority to ensure appropriate and adequate tolling enforcement.
Since July, the Oregon Department of Transportation, the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Washington Attorney General’s Office, the Oregon’s Department of Justice and the Office of the Oregon State Treasurer have methodically reviewed and analyzed the operational impacts, as well as the administrative, technical and legal questions related to the Oregon-led project. These reviews conclude that an Oregon-led project is technically, administratively, operationally, financially and legally possible.
Although this is an Oregon-led project, it certainly is not an Oregon-only project. All of our project partners—TriMet, C-Tran, the City of Vancouver, the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Highway Administration—are still part of the Oregon-led project, some with modified responsibilities to reflect the state of Washington’s postponed funding of the Washington interchanges. Importantly, our federal and local partners concur that the Oregon-led project continues to meet the safety and mobility benefits required in the federal Record of Decision, and they stand ready to move forward.
After the project met the essential construction schedule and funding deadlines as established in HB 2800, I discussed the need with legislative leadership for a special session in September, October or at the latest November 2013, to keep the project on schedule and budget. At that time, I shared my concerns about the costs of waiting until a scheduled February legislative session and delaying the project construction start date from December 2014 to fall 2015 at a cost of $60 million. However, legislative leaders made a compelling case that waiting until February 2014 would provide the state treasurer more time to review the finance plan, and that the completion of the Investment Grade Analysis would provide critical information for all of us on the viability of the Oregon-led finance plan.
The Legislature now has before it an Investment Grade Analysis, and the state treasurer has had time to review the finance plan and the Investment Grade Analysis. These findings are encouraging. As the committee heard from the different investment grade consultants, tolling will produce the necessary revenue to construct the I-5 replacement bridge and SR 14 interchange. After his review of the Investment Grade Analysis, State Treasurer Wheeler said, “Even with more conservative projections, it appears there will be sufficient traffic to cover the bonding servicing costs.” (1/10/2014.)
Since 2005, Oregon has spent over $90 million, including federal discretionary funds, on planning, designing and permitting this project. During that time, thousands of hours of community and public engagement helped inform and produce the locally-approved project that moved forward only with repeated local elected official support and actions on both sides of the river. In 2013, it became clear that the state of Washington has, and may continue to have, other higher-priority transportation projects than the I-5 bridge on the Washington/Oregon border. With that knowledge, I was committed to explore every option that allowed Oregon to take advantage of the planning, money, time, permits and leadership of all who have worked for over a decade in the best interests of both states. We have done that.
Moving forward requires decisive Oregon legislative action and an executed intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between the Washington State Department of Transportation and the Oregon Department of Transportation for bi-state construction. When the Oregon-led bi-state project was proposed, Governor Inslee indicated his willingness to sign such an agreement, but an IGA, in my view, need not be a threshold question before Oregon legislators act. Instead, an executed IGA should be included as a condition in any Oregon legislation prior to release of Oregon funds.
Oregon must either decisively move the project to construction or refocus and reprioritize our resources. A project in limbo is the worst and most expensive outcome for Oregon, and continuing expenditures to sustain work without progress is a waste of money and resources.
I have notified Governor Inslee, our federal and local partners, Oregon Transportation Commissioners and ODOT Director Garrett that without the appropriate action from the Oregon Legislature by March 9, 2014, and the appropriate action from the state of Washington by March 15, 2014, ODOT will close the project and begin archiving materials.
Indecision and further delays are simply too costly for Oregon. I have appreciated your consideration of this important transportation project, and I know you share my commitment to focusing the state’s resources, finding solutions and producing results.
John A. Kitzhaber, M.D.
CC: Members of the Oregon State Senate
Members of the Oregon State House
Ian Greenfield, 503-551-1495