Columbia River Crossing Bridge-Type Announcement
Both Governor Gregoire and I recognize the importance of replacing the Interstate Bridge to address a wide range of public priorities. First and foremost, safety – 400 crashes a year, congestion, impaired freight movement, limited public transportation, lousy and unsafe pedestrian and bicycle and facilities and seismic vulnerability are among the many reasons we must invest in a long-term solution to the Columbia River Crossing today.
We all know we need to move forward.
Maintaining our transportation infrastructure is critical for the future of a region made up of vibrant, walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly communities on both sides of the river. And we cannot overlook the importance of this five-mile segment of I-5 to the health of the region’s economy and large and small employers up and down the West Coast.
$40 billion worth of interstate and international commerce cross the Interstate Bridge to nearby ports, businesses and distribution facilities – and commerce is increasingly impacted by congestion at a pinch point now considered the worst spot anywhere between Mexico and Canada.
I firmly believe that our decision today – selecting the deck-truss bridge – marks a new beginning for the project and enables us to take the next step in making transportation investments that reflect the realities of the future, not the past.
Together, Governor Gregoire and I resolve to follow through on our commitment to the region to permit, engineer and construct the most affordable, least risky bridge possible, maintaining the project schedule, minimizing environmental impacts, and honoring commitments that have been made to communities on both sides of the river.
This decision was not arrived at lightly. Over the past two months I have spoken at length with many committed proponents and opponents of various bridge-types and designs and approaches – and I have given this input careful consideration.
To me there three central issues involved here. First is the actual bridge type itself. Second is the question of project financing. And third is ensuring that we are building a transportation project of the 21st century.
I think that one of the problems with the public debate around this project is that these three issues are often viewed as separate and discrete whereas, in reality, they are connected and interrelated. Let me touch briefly on each of these issues.
Clearly the question of bridge design has been receiving the most public attention and I have been impressed with the high level of debate as well as the creativity and ingenuity of those interested in ensuring we design and build a bridge to make the region proud. I am particularly grateful for the presentation provided to my by Urban Design Advisory Group which made a compelling case for a cable-stayed bridge – which is certainly my preference from an aesthetic standpoint. And I spent a great deal of time trying to see how we might make this work within the narrow funding window available to us.
I have personally spoken with Peter Rogoff, Administrator of Federal Transit Authority; Victor Mendez, Director of the Federal Highway Authority; Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood; Secretary of Commerce (and former Washington Governor) Gary Lock; and
Will Stelle, Administrator of the NW Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service.
These conversations have led me to the conclusion that the cable-stayed bridge type would need additional design work and environmental analysis and public review even prior to completing an assessment of whether a supplemental draft environmental impact statement would be needed. The time necessary for the preliminary design work and analysis would not only add cost to the project but, more importantly, would delay the final record of decision beyond the optimal time frame for securing federal funding.
This conclusion was reinforce in a conference call I had with our congressional delegation on April 15 who described growing uncertainly about transportation funding in Washington D.C. as congress struggles to develop a long term deficit reduction plan; and rapidly narrowing window in which to secure federal transit resources; and the increased competition for federal highway dollars which is expected if this appropriation is reduced.
If we miss this window we will put at risk not only the overall project financing, but particularly the $800 million in federal transitfunding which we are seeking to finance the light rail elements of the project. Contrary to recent reports, the aesthetics of this bridge are a high priority for me. But at the same time we must uses this project to begin to change the transportation paradigm in our region by supporting transit and other non-automobile options. The reality is that the deck-truss is the only bridge type that can keep us in the funding window for the transit resources necessary to begin to bring about this paradigm shift.
Having said that, Governor Gregoire and I are committed to tapping the region’s design talent and energy to provide meaningful input as we move from decisions about bridge-type to bridge-design. I am confident in our ability to deliver a bridge of the future, not a bridge of the past – a project of enduring value – that is worthy of our great region.
Toward that end we have directed the project team to engage bridge architects and designers immediately to develop conceptual design elements for the deck-truss to be incorported prior to the issuance of the a design/build contract. Through this process I believe this bridge across this river can and will be architecturally elegant.
The next issue before us – although less glamorous that bridge design – is financing, which is crucial for this project to move forward. While most of the public debate to this point has been around the bridge type; financing is equally if not more important in the long term.
The last thing we need is to expose our general fund to a large liability in the future so the financing plan must be solid. Therefore, the questions that have been raised about the CRC financing – many of which I share – must be taken seriously.
As I mentioned, we have a very short window of opportunity to seek federal transit money for the project – so we must refine a project financing plan while securing necessary federal project approvals this year. The fact is that without a financing plan that passes muster we will not secure the federal funding needed to move the project forward.
I appreciate the concerns over financing raised by my old friend Joe Cortright and others who share his thinking and I have taken this input seriously. Governor Gregoire and I are committed to an inclusive, transparent and accountable process as we begin this new phase of project finance.
Toward that end we have directed our state treasures to work with their own bond experts -- and, if necessary, with external specialists – to conduct an independentreview of the CRC’s financial options; including an assessment of strengths and weaknesses; project phasing schedules with contingency plans if some of the funding does not materialize. This review, which will be completed this year, will be followed by an investment grade analysis of the project financing plan.
We are also committed to involving both the Washington and Oregon legislatures and have request that legislative leadership appoint a bicameral, bi-state committee for review and oversight of the project – including project financing -- as it moves forward.
A Project for the 21st Century
Finally we must ensure that the CRC is a transportation project of the 21st century. If there is any part of this project that will be a legacy for the region, this is it. To me this project is more than just a congestion problem to be solved by building more capacity. It is an opportunity to begin to change how we view our transportation system.
We have been locked into a monolithic, narrow view of transportation since the creation of the interstate highway system in the 1950’s. And while we
are committed to improving our transportation system by providing efficient and reliable choices to connect people, goods and communities; the traffic management elements– including alternative transportation options and tolling – are of equal importance to bridge and freeway construction.
Federal transit dollars are critically important to funding the light rail elements of this project and therefore to ensuring that we are building a 21st century transportation system for the region. And that is why the funding window to secure these transit dollars was so important in the selection of a bridge type.
We are moving into an era of steadily increasing fossil fuel costs, compounded by the need to reduce carbon emissions. Funding the public transit, bike and pedestrian elements of this project first– in conjunction with tolling and congestion pricing -- begins the paradigm shift toward incorporating the realities of a low-carbon future into our transportation policies.
And I am committed to doing all that I can to ensure that this new paradigm becomes the cultural norm within the Oregon Department of Transportation as we move forward.
This moment has been a long time coming. We have had a spirited public debate and now it is time to move forward together. Governor Gregoire and I will work closely with our federal partners to stay on track to attain a final Record of Decision by the end of the year.
Also, the sooner we move into engineering and groundbreaking, the sooner we will begin to reap the economic benefits of the thousands of construction jobs as well as the long-term job gains through improved freight mobility.
Minimizing risks, controlling costs and completing the project on time and on budget – these are our top priorities as we move forward with the Columbia River Crossing Project -- a strategic investment in the future our region.