Funding of new bridge across Columbia questioned

KENNEWICK -- Even if Tri-Citians and public officials decide to build a new Columbia River bridge, it likely would be another 20 years before the first vehicle crosses it.

And how to pay its estimated $200 million to $500 million cost is the big question mark.

That was among the information officials working on the Columbia River Crossing Study shared with about 225 people at a Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday at the Kennewick Red Lion.

Although one speaker politely asked the crowd to not raise questions about possibly having to pay a toll to use the bridge, it came up anyway.

A steering committee has been working since 2009 on the study, which is expected to be complete at the end of next week.

Since 1985, area residents have talked about how to relieve congestion on the blue bridge between Kennewick and Pasco, said Mark Kushner, transportation director of the Benton-Franklin Council of Governments.

The recent study's goals are to improve traffic flow on the bridge, improve road connections between the cities and encourage economic development, or at least not disrupt it, Kushner said.

Rick Door, a project manager at JUB Engineers of Kennewick, which has been advising the steering committee, said the committee evaluated 10 locations for a new bridge, from North Richland south to Finley.

Committee members winnowed the 10 to four, based on how much each alternative would reduce congestion, provide economic development opportunities and improve road connectivity. They also evaluated the alternatives based on costs, environmental impacts and community feedback.

More recently, the committee narrowed the choices to three: a bridge connecting North Richland with Franklin County's Sagemoor Road; one connecting Road 68 in Pasco to Edison Street in Kennewick; and a new bridge next to the blue bridge.

The estimated costs, in 2010 dollars, are $500 million for the North Richland crossing, $445 million for Edison Street and $280 million for a blue bridge.

Kushner said the Council of Governments plans to consider a final draft of the study on Feb. 25.

After that, "it will become a community and elected official decision on where we go with it," he said.

If the community decides to proceed, an environmental assessment would help pick an alternative.

Other steps would include coming up with a funding plan, deciding whether to do a full environmental impact statement and designing the new bridge. Building it would take two to three years.

An audience member asked if that timeline might be fast tracked. Door said he thought the 20-year time frame is realistic, given the project magnitude and "just getting the funding."

Typically, a member of Congress would be asked to seek earmarked money for it, Kushner said.

When asked if the area would be competing for state money with other road projects, Kushner said it would compete with such projects on the west side as plans to improve Puget Sound highways and build a new bridge between Vancouver and Portland.

Another questioner asked if other forms of funding, such as bridge tolls, would be considered.

"I couldn't see this project going forward without that at least being on the table," Door said.

For more information on the study, go to www.crcstc.com.

Starting Monday, study information will be available on the Benton-Franklin Council of Governments website, www.bfcog.us.

-- Kathy Korengel: 509-582-1541; kkorengel@tricityherald.com