State transportation officials heard about the latest developments for the project to replace the aging Interstate 5 Bridge over the Columbia River last week, with concerns over the updated cost range and the timing of determining toll procedure among the questions asked.
During the first day of a two-day meeting on Jan. 18 and Jan. 19, the Washington State Transportation Commission heard from Frank Green, the assistant program manager for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program (IBRP). Green provided an update on the last several months of work the program has undertaken, which included an updated cost estimate for the project.
Released in December, the current estimate has a range from $5 billion to $7.5 billion. Green said the most likely cost at this time lands at $6 billion.
The estimate exceeds the previous estimate based on data available in 2020, which topped out at $4.8 billion. Green said a number of factors played into the increase, including the historic inflation industries are experiencing.
Material costs were a volatile aspect of that estimate. Green presented a graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed prices for different materials at increases from about 32% to as much as 91% in the case of steel mill products between April 2020 and September 2022.
The wide range of the total cost estimate is a result of the risk of construction delays, Green said.
“The further out that construction may start is really the reason why you see (the range),” Green said.
He added later “the cost, risk increases are really schedule-driven risk events … if we’re not able to stay on our target schedule, that’s when we see the cost of this program potentially increasing.”
Questions from the commission centered around the cost range and parts of the project timeline that would include the commission. One of those pieces would determine tolling, as the commission is the state’s tolling authority.
WSTC Executive Director Reema Griffith said Washington and Oregon’s transportation commissions would coordinate plans later than the timeline the program includes. Griffith said it would likely be after both states’ legislatures are out of session this year.
Though she hopes to have a meeting with Oregon’s commission this summer, Griffith noted Washington, Oregon and California’s transportation commissions would meet in September, which may open an opportunity for Washington and Oregon to sit down around that time and start discussions if no earlier date can be scheduled.
Green said the timeline reflects what the bridge program has done to coordinate with the different transportation commissions.
“We’re working on a plan that hopefully we can bring back to both commissions to see if there isn’t some bi-state work we can do there,” Green said.
Commissioner Shiv Batra asked why the range of the cost is so wide. Batra also asked who would pay for the cost of the project if it goes over the $6 billion estimate.
Green said the recent grant awards by the Federal Highway Administration for its Large Bridge Project program was an encouraging sign. Although the IBRP did not receive the $750 million grant it applied for, he said another project, the reconstruction of the Brent Spence Bridge, showed promise.
The Brent Spence Bridge project received close to $1.4 billion in the round of funding announced earlier this month.
“It’s a program very similar to ours. It’s a bi-state program that’s replacing a bridge over a major thoroughfare river,” Green said.
The bridge sits between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Covington, Kentucky over the Ohio River.
Program staff said the projects that received funding awards were closer to the start of construction than the IBRP. The current timeline has construction breaking ground as early as late 2025 on the I-5 bridge.
“We’re going to be aggressive to look for any and all sources we can for funding,” Green said.
Green said construction is expected to last 10 years. During construction, he said the project will ensure three lanes of traffic in the corridor during rush hour.
Green said the program will have the chance to find cost savings, through things like “value engineering” and design refinements, during the more detailed design process. If federal funding comes up short, the program will need to look toward those measures to fund the project to completion, he said.
As to Batra’s question on the cost, Green said the main driver for the increased estimate from 2020 is not the scope change.
“The scope change may have been a little bit of a part of that, but really it’s the cost of a bridge 10 years ago versus the cost of a bridge today,” Green said.