ALAMEDA, Calif. — A group of Washington and Oregon leaders signed off this month on important parameters for one of the Northwest's biggest planned public works projects — a replacement for the Interstate 5 crossing of the Columbia River.

The existing crossing is a traffic chokepoint, slowing down not only regional and international trade on the I-5 corridor, but commuter traffic linking Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., across the river.

The existing I-5 crossing uses two lift bridges, one built in 1917 and the other in 1958. There are three lanes in each direction, with no shoulders, and traffic has to stop when the bridges lift for marine traffic.

The regional stakeholders signed off on some important decisions about the project — including the choice of five lanes in each direction instead of six.

They had already agreed to incorporate a cross-river extension of Portland's light-rail system, along with pedestrian and bicycle access.

The project is estimated to cost up to $3.6 billion. But many critical steps remain to be taken before it becomes a reality.

A group of independent experts appointed by the two states' governors recently delivered a report warning that there are serious obstacles the project has yet to overcome, including unanswered questions about governance, finance, and design.

"We have procedural hurdles, and we also have funding hurdles," said project spokeswoman Carley Francis.

The project is co-sponsored by the two states' respective transportation departments, with active coordination and participation from six other government entities: the cities of Portland and Vancouver, the two metropolitan planning organizations that program federal transportation funding, and the two transit agencies that serve the respective sides of the river.

At the end of July, a group of independent experts delivered a 317-page report on the project.

The eight-member Independent Review Panel was composed of experts who were not involved with the project and are precluded from any further contracts with it.

The panel concluded that a more focused form of governance will be needed to make a new crossing a reality.

"Decision-making appears to be cumbersome due to the management of the effort in effect 'by committee,' " the report says. "It is not the kind of management and governance structure that should exist during construction and for the long-term management of the facility once it is open."

"There's a ton of those conversations that have to happen," Francis said. "There are likely going to be a lot of conversations between the states."

Current plans presume bonding for at least $1 billion against toll revenues.

The current crossing is not tolled, though tolls were used to finance each of the two current bridges.

The last toll was removed in 1967, when the bonds that financed the second bridge were retired.

According to the independent review, there have been a variety of ideas floated for a permanent governance structure, including a bi-state commission, an interstate compact, a bridge authority, or a mobility council.

"However, in spite of much discussion on this point, no consensus exists among the sponsors as to the membership, role, or authority of such an entity," the report said. "Time is of the essence for moving ahead and establishing this entity."

Such an entity is particularly important when it comes to tolling, the report said, because revenue bond investors will want to know who is responsible for setting and collecting tolls.

"Firm decisions about what tolling strategies are to be used and who will be responsible for setting tolls will need to be confirmed," the report said.

Francis said the project will depend on several other financing components, including a $750 million new-starts grant from the Federal Transit Administration, $400 million from the Federal Highway Administration's projects of national significance program, and $800 million from the two state governments.

"We're hoping to have those conversations in the next legislative session," Francis said.

But funding isn't the only concern, according to the independent report. Fundamental questions about bridge design remain unanswered.

The project's sponsors modified the design of the project after they selected their locally preferred alternative in 2008, the independent review said.

"It reflects a departure from a standard structure type used across the nation to one that has never been built anywhere in the world and which will require extensive testing and engineering to determine its viability for this project," the report said.

The design change was driven by a desire to create a more attractive structure, while addressing security and reliability concerns about the light-rail system.

The challenge was compounded by the need for a span high enough to accommodate marine traffic, while maintaining safety for two nearby airports, including Portland International Airport.

Francis said the crossing staff is currently working to address the points and recommendations made by the independent review committee.

When the report was published July 30, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski said they were asking their transportation departments to prepare updated cost estimates for the project by the end of the year.

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