The Port of Hood River on Thursday took a deep dive into options for replacing the Hood River White-Salmon Interstate Bridge.
The work session brought together several Hood River and White Salmon city council members and the full Port Commission, who questioned three experts from around the nation in public-private partnerships, infrastructure projects and financing: David Klinges, Lowell Clary, and Phillippe Rapin.
The panel recommended the port take on substantial public outreach before going out for a replacement plan — whatever form that takes — and that they start with a detailed traffic analysis and final environmental impact statement (FEIS).
“Learn the playing field before you start playing on it. This is the right way to go about it,” Klinges said.
Since 1950, the port has owned the Columbia River toll bridge. Age and upkeep costs spurred discussions for years about replacing the bi-state link.
Port Executive Director Michael McElwee, who moderated the Jan. 18 work session, explained steps have already been made toward a new bridge.
In the early 2000s, multiple Gorge jurisdictions finished a draft environmental impact statement — which could serve as the groundwork for an updated version. Also recently, a type, size and location study recommended the new bridge should be built just west of the existing structure.
Partnerships that could manage a new bridge, and funding for the $250 million-plus price tag, aren’t yet settled.
However, two 2017 Oregon House bills set aside $5 million for a pre-development study for replacing the bridge, and authorized the port to take on public-private partnerships in managing the span.
For the $5 million piece, an intergovernmental agreement between ODOT and the port was executed Jan. 9.
McElwee explained the agreement is based on a reimbursement approach — the port will pay for project expenses related to the EIS and associated costs, and ODOT will reimburse the port within 45 days.
That partnership concept — called “P3” — came up at the meeting, among various traditional methods a public agency can take on major infrastructure procurement.
McElwee said port staff are drafting administrative rules required by the Legislature for a “P3” setup.
“The legislation said, ‘look, we’ll give you these authorities, but you also need to approve (and) adopt administrative rules that govern how you consider unsolicited and solicited proposals,’” McElwee explained.
United Bridge Partners, a Denver-based private firm, in November submitted an unsolicited bridge replacement proposal that the port did not review. Staff cited lawmakers’ directive to develop “P3” rules before considering any such plan.
He expects the port commission will hold hearings on the ruleset in February and adopt the regulations in March.
On Thursday, assembled elected leaders and port staff heard various procurement alternatives for the bridge replacement, many with attached pros and cons.
The meeting was also a White Salmon City Council meeting, due to a quorum of council members, including Mayor David Poucher, being present. Hood River City Council attendees included Mayor Paul Blackburn and council members Megan Saunders and Mark Zanmiller.
The consultants recommended “transparency” and communicating with the public as the port builds its team. They noted a transition to a privately-owned bridge could draw controversy, and responding to those sentiments early on would be advisable.
Clary said, “I can’t overemphasize the outreach if you go down a P3 path … also do the homework and do your evaluation of best value, because essentially as a public champion … that is your tool to lay out why you’re doing this, to the public.”
Klinges said of the timeline, “Even if you don’t do anything for 3-6 months, at least know who’s going to guide you through that, because things might come up.
“What you want to make sure you do is move the ball every month.”
On Monday, McElwee discussed steps following the bridge meeting. Much evaluation awaits, as the port hasn’t settled on a “P3” approach over any other in the range of possibilities.
McElwee said the port commission will discuss the first full draft of the “P3” framework administrative rules Tuesday evening.
Various tasks remain before the port would be ready to enter talks with private bridge funders, such as United Bridge Partners, he said.
“The experts we have consulted with believe the port needs to be much farther down the road in terms of the permit process (FEIS), traffic modeling, financial analysis, market feedback and stakeholder outreach before we are in a position to consider unsolicited proposals such as UBP’s,” McElwee said.