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For Columbia River Crossing, Coast Guard objections are just the beginning

A concept graphic of the planned Columbia River Crossing. Credit: 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.”

While primarily a highway project, the undertaking hinges on a light-rail component which many in Vancouver do not want, since they would be taxed to subsidize the service once built. The CRC’s backers only included the Portland-Vancouver light-rail extension, Howell said, to gain entree to the FTA and its key $900 million in funding. Pressentin countered that the CRC had reviewed 70 different ideas on how to configure the project. Out of an open review process, she said, project managers developed the current scenario, light rail included, as the “locally preferred alternative” — the term used by the feds minding the piggy bank.

A schematic on the project website encourages further doubts. One of the lower decks would be given over to the double-track light rail; the other span would have a 16-foot-wide pathway for bikes and pedestrians, but the remaining space is simply a blank. “We don’t know what the use for that will be,” Pressentin said.

Nor has it been determined how to underwrite operation of the light-rail service once built. C-Tran, the transit provider for Clark County, is debating the filing of a November ballot question for a sales-tax increment for the subsidy, which would run about $2.5 million yearly.

While sales taxes represent a conventional source of transit funding, C-Tran’s commissioners are looking over their shoulders at outlying areas of their taxing district that would lie beyond the rail route, and that might vote overwhelmingly against the tax hike. One possibility under consideration is to create a subdistrict in central Vancouver, so that areas that wouldn’t get the service wouldn’t pay the tax either. Vancouver mayor Tim Leavitt is meanwhile examining ways to finance the subsidy — which is small, on the scale of modern urban finance — without the sales tax bump and, hence, the politically sticky ballot question.

Asked what the CRC would do if voters rejected a ballot question on the light-rail funding, Pressentin said, “We’ll look at what our options are.”

Given the clearance dispute if nothing else, completion of the project could easily slip past the target date of 2020, which is already 25 years after discussion of the spans’ replacement began.

Part of the project’s political problem is that it’s got something for everyone to hate. Transit advocates turn pale at the thought of giving the freeway four more lanes, while transit skeptics see a costly light-rail system being shoved down their throats. The latter category includes the project’s most conspicuous opponent, David Madore, a Vancouver businessman and the driving force behind the political action committee Asked in a phone interview whether he would support the project if the light-rail element disappeared, he said yes, adding his belief that Vancouver as a whole would support it then, too.

But the project as it stands? No way. Tolls, taxes, soaring costs — he rattled off the project’s downsides. And light-rail, he said, “does nothing for freight corridors or congestion relief.”

Vancouver city council members, said Madore, “are trying to manipulate the voting district” in order to get light rail’s approval. He supposed that either of two blocs of three C-Tran commissioners who have a collective veto power will “veto anything that’s not a gerrymandered subdistrict.”

The project, he said, “is based on deceit and misrepresentation. The people are cut out of the process so we can’t vote on it.”

Howell’s group has meanwhile posited what it calls a common sense alternative that would increase transit capacity across the river without replacing the bridge. According to AORTA, the plan would cost $1.4 billion, less than half the cost of full implementation of the CRC design.

“The whole concept of freeway rebuild – it might have been acceptable in the 1960s [but] it’s not acceptable now, especially in Portland,” Howell said.

Finding themselves in a crossfire of outrage are the project’s backers, led by Identity Clark County, a private non-profit whose directors represent a range of business interests. Asked if widening the freeway suited a region that advertises itself as green, executive director Paul Montague noted the environmental impacts of cars sitting in stalled traffic on the bridge. The structure, he said, dates from “when the primary means of travel was horse-and-buggy. The new bridge is designed for cars and trucks traveling at 60 mph.”

Asked if the proposal provided too many arrows for its opponents’ quivers, he demurred, calling it a consensus solution. “There is a minority of folks who . . . resist the solution despite the years of public hearings, discourse, meetings — there’s been a whole lot of input over the last 17 years, since this discussion first started.”

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