Buried in an Oregon Department of Transportation presentation earlier this month is an acknowledgement that the I-5 bridge replacement “contribution” from Oregon will be as much as $1 billion—up from a maximum of $850 million just two months earlier.

The I-5 bridge replacement project (formerly known as the Columbia River Crossing) is a proposal for a multi-billion dollar freeway widening and bridge-expansion program between Portland and Vancouver.  The original CRC project died after costing nearly $200 million for staff and consultants in 2014, but has been revived in the past year.

The cost to Oregon of reviving this boondoggle just jumped to $1 billion.

Late last year, we took a close look at the project’s initial financial plans, which show the project could cost as much as $4.8 billion (and considerably more if more realistic inflation estimates are used). We also identified a fundamental math error in the estimation of the project’s financial gap, i.e. the difference between expected costs and potential revenues.  The Oregon and Washington transportation departments—ODOT and WSDOT—understated the maximum size of the funding gap (i.e. what happens in the two state’s realize the low end of expected revenues and incur the high end of expected costs), by more than $1 billion; the total gap the two state’s face is $3.4 billion.  That hole will have to be filled for the project to move forward.  While both states have indicated an interest in reviving the project, neither has committed funds, so a big question now is, how much will they have to contribute.  The Oregon Department of Transportation was telling legislators one thing a couple of months ago, and something a good deal more expensive now.

December 2020:  Oregon contribution $650 to $850 million

ODOT has been including its estimates of Oregon’s share of these costs in its presentations to state legislators.  On December 10, 2021, ODOT testified to the Legislature that Oregon’s contribution to the I-5 bridge project would be $650 million to $850 million.  (The second colored bar on this chart is identified as “Interstate Bridge Replacement Contribution”

February 2021:  Oregon contribution $750 to $850 million
That estimate is no longer operative.  In a presentation to the Legislature on February 4, 2021, the Department included this diagram, showing the state’s contribution to the project was now $750 million to 1 billion.  The chart is almost identical to the chart presented in December, only the price tag of the I-5 bridge project has changed.
In presenting this chart to the Joint Transportation Committee, ODOT’s Brendan Finn made no mention of the increase in Oregon’s expected contribution.  Instead, he drew the committee’s attention to the timetable for implementation of tolling, and didn’t discuss any of the budgetary amounts listed on this chart.  No one on the committee commented on or questioned the budget amounts.
By comparison to financial plans for the original CRC, this represents essentially a doubling of the state contribution to project costs.  The adopted CRC finance plan called for Oregon and Washington to each chip in $450 million, with the balance of the project to be paid for by tolls, federal transportation funds, and hoped for earmarks.  This change in Oregon’s contribution also implies that the total cost of the project has likely increased by between $200 and $300 million since December, as project costs are divided evenly between the two states by agreement of their state transportation commissions.
Steadily escalating project costs, with under-estimates early on, and cost-overruns later are a routine feature of ODOT projects.  Just a year ago, after long telling the Oregon Legislature that the Rose Quarter freeway widening project would cost $450 million, ODOT raised the project’s price tag to as much as $795 million.  Cost-overruns of 200 percent or more have been common on large ODOT highway projects like the Highway 20 Pioneer Mountain-Eddyville segment, the Newberg-Dundee bypass and Portland’s Grand Avenue Viaduct.
While the allocation of much smaller amounts to bicycle, pedestrian and safety projects generates substantial debate and visible resistance from ODOT, the implied decision to increase the allocation for a major freeway-widening project doesn’t even merit a mention to the Legislature, and is accomplished, seemingly, with a deft change to a single powerpoint slide.  This is typical of ODOT budget practices which conveniently find “unanticipated” revenue whenever it’s time to fund a major highway project.
Even though Oregon and Washington have already spent nearly $200 million on the CRC, and committed another $50 million to the planning effort to revive the project, there’s still considerable uncertainty about the project’s actual dimensions, costs, and revenues.  All one can say with any confidence, based on long experience, is that the project’s total price tag is likely to go even higher.