A photo between two spans of the Interstate bridge
The current I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. Oregon Department of Transportation

Metro Council approved $36 million in funding for the continued planning of the Interstate-5 bridge replacement over the Columbia River on Thursday, despite councilor skepticism.

“I see a flawed process, but opportunities on the horizon,” said Metro Councilor Christine Lewis. “Let's take what we have and push it towards good and not towards bad.”

The bi-state transportation project, called the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR), is the region’s second attempt at replacing the I-5 bridge spanning the Columbia River to connect Oregon and Washington—a major thoroughfare for commuters and freight trucks. The first attempt, the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, failed in 2014 after Washington and Oregon legislators were unable to agree on a funding plan.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee revived the bridge replacement project in 2019, citing the need to address the seismic instability of the bridge and to improve traffic flow. The IBR project is still in the early planning stages, gathering input from communities who use the bridge and moving through the federal government’s required environmental assessment of the project. The project’s eight government partners from both sides of the river, including Metro, are expected to endorse a final bridge design in June 2022.

But first, Metro had to approve its half of the funding needed to get through the planning phase of the IBR project. The Washington Department of Transportation is responsible for the other half of the $71 million in planning funding.

Thursday’s vote was highly anticipated by environmental and transportation advocates. Metro’s approval of the funding was never in question—Metro council wants the IBR project to continue to be planned—but advocates saw the vote as an opportunity for Metro to make the funding approval contingent on the IBR project team’s agreement to additional climate goals.

No More Freeways, The Street Trust, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and other advocacy groups have campaigned for Metro to withhold funding unless the IBR team commits to conducting studies on how the project could incentivize a reduction in vehicle miles traveled across the bridge, how traffic will be impacted and possibly decreased by planned tolling across the bridge, and how the project will impact air quality from downtown Vancouver to downtown Portland. The coalition of advocacy groups wants all three studies conducted before a final bridge design is chosen so the findings could be used to inform the number of car lanes the bridge needs. Currently, prospective bridge designs all include 10 lanes—an expansion from the bridge’s current eight lanes that advocates fear will cause an increase in car traffic and carbon emissions.

Metro responded to activists’ pressure by adopting all three activist-proposed amendments to the council’s official demands for the IBR project. Metro’s demands are outlined through a values document and include advancing racial equity, creating economic prosperity, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and engaging community stakeholders. The values document also recommends actions the IBR team should take to prove the project’s alignment with Metro’s values before June.

"We are pleased to see the Metro Council as a Partner of the Interstate 5 Bridge Project create clear goals and accountability mechanisms to meet the region's goals for a sustainable, healthy, and effective transportation system,” The Street Trust, 1000 Friends of Oregon, and No More Freeways said in a joint statement following Metro’s vote. “Centering community-led amendments… helps elected officials and community advocates in the region create a clearer vision for the project that centers racial equity and climate justice.”

Because Metro is just one of eight government partners involved in the IBR project, it’s unclear how much weight their demands will hold. This became clearer, however, as the councilors discussed the requests with IBR program director Greg Johnson.

Johnson declined to make a verbal commitment to meeting the goals and values laid out in Metro’s values document.

"I'd like a direct answer to the commitment your team will make to [adjusting the bridge design] to meet our expectations,” Councilor Mary Nolan asked Johnson. “Yes or no?”

“It’s not a yes or no answer,” Johnson replied, saying the bridge will be designed based on congestion and traffic needs first. The IBR project is still using traffic projections from the failed CRC project and has not committed to researching the impact planned tolling across the bridge will have on traffic volume before determining a bridge design.

“I’ve been disappointed by the indirection and obfuscation by the two leaders on the [IBR] project team,” Nolan said. “When given opportunities to embrace our requests, the project team … have instead waffled.”

While all five other councilors voiced similar disappointment in the IBR team’s lack of commitment to Metro’s goals for the project, Nolan was the sole councilor to vote against approving the project funding.

Metro will receive monthly updates on the project progress and will evaluate whether or not the IBR team is meeting their goals in early May.