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February 14, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Feds offer to pay for light rail on Portland-Vancouver I-5 bridge

Skeptics of a new Interstate 5 bridge linking Portland and Vancouver, Wash., have complained that adding light rail would drive up the costs, but the Obama administration wants to pick up nearly the full tab to provide train service over the bridge.

In the latest “New Starts” list issued Tuesday, federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposes an $850 million grant so Portland TriMet’s Yellow Line could cross the Columbia River to Clark College and a 2,900-slot park-and-ride lot. The grant would nearly repay the $940 million cost to install rail on the Columbia River Crossing, the list says.

The overall $3.5 billion bridge project remains in preliminary engineering, and is ranked medium-low for local financing because Washington and Oregon haven’t completed a highway tolling plan yet. It’s ranked medium-high for transportation benefits. The states hope to start construction at the end of 2013.

However, the rail ridership estimate, at 22,000 per day in 2030, is relatively low for an $850 million outlay, compared to other transit programs around the nation, including Sound Transit in Seattle.

Peter Rogoff, Federal Transit Administrator, strongly endorsed the plan when asked about this in a national press teleconference. The two states are stepping up to pay the freeway cost, making the USDOT comfortable to subsidize the transit side. There’s already an immediate commuter market of 14,000 trips a day that can save time using rail. A bicycle-pedestrian trail is urgently needed, he said.

“You need to be mindful of the fact that this is about making an interstate connection,” Rogoff said.

Besides citing high costs, critics in Vancouver also predict that trains would run near empty in non-commute hours.

LaHood said a highway bill by House Republicans would send the U.S. “back to the horse and buggy days” by reducing transit aid, but he believes it will be changed this week to protect existing projects. These include $813 million for the $1.95 billion University Link line in Seattle.

Comments | More in Government, Traffic & Transit | Topics: bridge, Portland, train

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