Columbia River Crossing
Columbia River Crossing
The Columbia River Crossing, which if built would connect Vancouver, Wash., with Portland, Ore., would not be the nation's busiest bridge — the George Washington Bridge holds that distinction — but it would be massive indeed. I-5's cars and trucks, ten lanes of them, would sweep along the twin spans' upper deck while lower decks would accommodate a light-rail line and a pedestrian-bicycle path 16 feet wide. The expected price tag is $3.1 billion.
If the bridge is built as currently designed, that is. Close to two decades after discussion of a new bridge on the route began, and seven years after the formal launch of the undertaking — described officially as “a transportation project jointly owned” by Washington's and Oregon's departments of transportation — the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) has reached a crucial juncture.
The final environmental impact statement (FEIS) has been published and reviewed. On that basis, on December 7, the CRC received the U.S. Department of Transportation's (USDOT's) final approval, in the form of a “notice of decision” which allowed design and construction planning to proceed.
On March 2, however, The Columbian, Vancouver's daily, revealed a gaping hole in the project's plans: The Coast Guard had informed the bridge-builders in an October 24 letter that the structure's planned 95-foot clearance was inadequate, and that, until that issue was properly addressed, the Coast Guard would not provide a permit essential to proceeding.
The Columbian also reported that a Vancouver oil-rig builder had notified the CRC in 2006 that it needed 125 feet of clearance to barge its mammoth products out to sea, but in 2008 the CRC stated that “there are no apparent adverse impacts from the [95-foot] vertical clearance.” It turns out that at least three other users, reportedly including U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredges, will also need more headroom.
Asked how the project organization could have ignored something so obvious for so long, CRC spokeswoman Anne Pressentin said, “You can't apply for a [Coast Guard] bridge permit until you have a record of decision.” With that record in hand, she continued, the CRC is now revising its information on navigational uses.
“The previous data we had was for the 2004-2006 time frame, and we're updating that by talking with all the users. From there we'll be moving forward with the Coast Guard and identifying the navigation needs. . . . In 2006 they couldn't give a definitive yes or a definitive no on our plans going forward [in regard to the height issue]."
“There was a few we were aware of that had requested a higher clearance,” she said. “We knew that once we got this [record of] decision we would go into this permitting phase. Then we'll be looking at whether mitigation will be necessary — or if we can avoid or minimize the impact.” Mitigation could involve paying the oil-rig builder the added expense of shipping a rig out in smaller parts to get it under the bridge.
“It's really too early to tell” what solution might take shape, she said.
Randall Overton, bridge administrator for the Coast Guard's district office, told Crosscut that the October 24 letter was “meant to encourage them [CRC] to collect all the data they needed before they make their [permit] application. We're trying to get it as early as possible.”
The October letter appears to have had little impact. On December 7 — just hours, it seems, before USDOT blessed the project with its notice of decision — Coast Guard vice commandant Sally Brice-O'Hara sent a memo to USDOT deputy secretary John Porcari, stating that “extensive discussions at several levels of our organizations have substantially exhausted the dispute resolution measures. . . . Although you intend to sign the ROD [record of decision] today. . . the Coast Guard will not be able to accept a bridge permit application based on the information provided in the FEIS.”
The memo goes on to review perceived defects in the FEIS's treatment of the clearance issue, and states that that document, which runs to about 932 megabytes, might need supplementation. Finally, the memo expresses “some concern” that “your FEIS” cites USDOT permitting authority for the bridge when “authority currently resides with the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security,” which includes the Coast Guard.
Dana Goward, the Coast Guard's director of marine transportation systems, told Crosscut that the CRC was at this point getting plenty of help from federal administrators in sorting the situation out. “You can't expect the folks on the project staff to know everything,” he said.
The CRC's options are fairly limited. Drawbridges such as those on the existing twin three-lane spans, opened in 1917 and 1958, are out of the question in this era of harried commuters and just-in-time freight deliveries. Raising the deck to the desired 125 feet would add $150 million to the $3.1 billion price tag.
Moreover, in sorting out the height problem, engineers will be “threading a needle,” in Pressentin's words. While the Coast Guard is calling for a higher clearance, the Federal Aviation Administration will not allow the bridge-builders to go much higher, in view of flights in and out of two nearby airports.
Complicating the matter further is the possible need to scale down the project in any event. As of January 31, the project had chewed through $144 million of its $3.1 billion budget without sinking a single piling, and disgruntlement is rising apace with the accruing bills. The fiscal pressures led the CRC to present an alternative plan at an Oregon Legislature hearing in January. The bargain version would scale back I-5 interchange upgrades in the five-mile-long project corridor, saving $650 million. Spokeswoman Patricia McCaig told the hearing the CRC was prepared to accept fiscal realities.
As the plan stands, Washington and Oregon would each provide $450 million towards the project. Neither legislature has yet approved the appropriation, however. The Federal Transit Administration has committed $850 million, the Federal Highway Administration $400 million.
Tolls would generate the remainder — close to a billion dollars. Governor Chris Gregoire last week signed a bill to give the Washington Transportation Commission the power to levy the tolls in cooperation with the Oregon Transportation Commission, which already had that authority in the Beaver State. Pressentin said tolls could range from one to three dollars for a car, depending on the time of day.
Motorists would have the option of shifting from the I-5 route to the toll-free, parallel I-205 crossing, 6 miles up river, or to transit. That makes the toll predictions dicey. Estimates of diversion from the 520 bridge to the I-90 bridge across Lake Washington are running in the 35-40 percent range, and diversion from Seattle's new SR 99 tunnel, with its $4 peak-hour toll, to toll-free I-5 remains a wild card.
The new crossing would address problems ranging from safety to freight mobility, but there's been no shortage of controversy over the efficacy of such a grandiose solution. Transit backers say it simply gives someone with a weight problem — traffic congestion, that is — a bigger pair of trousers. An Oregon Department of Transportation website page, apparently from the mid-2000s, states that “with ongoing preservation, the [twin I-5] bridges can serve the public for another 60 years.”
“We don't think it's going to get built,” Jim Howell of the Association of Oregon Rail and Transit Advocates (AORTA) told Crosscut. “Where's the money coming from to build it? It's losing credibility very fast.”
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!