Columbia River Crossing planners appear to have drawn a line in the air: The bridges—designed too low for expect shipping traffic—can be raised to 115 feet or so, but not much more.

After what the officials call a "substantial technical analysis," project leaders told Washington legislators today that 115 feet lets most ships through without adding significantly to the cost and impacts to Hayden Island and downtown Vancouver.

Of course, the analysis wouldn't have been necessary if CRC planners of the $3.5 billion project had designed the side-by-side spans to the right height in the first place. 

The CRC long ignored caution from the U.S. Coast Guard that its previously planned 95-foot height was too short. The Coast Guard, which must approve the height, has since said 115 is still too low.

The technical analysis, the CRC says in a release, was prepared as part of the permit application to the Coast Guard.

The CRC proposes to replace aging Interstate 5 bridges with two new spans, five miles of interchange improvements, light rail to downtown Vancouver and bike and pedestrian crossings.

However, WW reported last month that the Coast Guard has already told the CRC that the analysis (which project officials pitched to Washington state lawmakers today) isn't what the federal agency was looking for. Among other problems, the analysis fails to include enough information about impacts at other heights, including those up to its current maximum clearance of 178 feet.
The CRC said that it found that out of the more than 2,600 commercial river users, nine to 11 may be unable to fit underneath a 115-116 foot bridge. Moving the bridge from its previously planned 95-foot height to 115 feet adds an extra $30 million to the megaproject.

But that figure doesn't include the millions it will have to spend to mitigate for taller ships.

Those costs include massive barges operated by companies such as Thompson Metal Fab in Vancouver, which has said it needs about 150 feet or more to remain competitive.

Instead, the CRC's proposals have included putting tall ships on a truck and driving them around the bridge, or paying to relocate them entirely. However, the Coast Guard has also made it clear the law means the CRC must accommodate not only current river traffic, but reasonably anticipated future river traffic.

Adding height also means the U.S. Department of Transportation is going to have to reassess the project's environmental work, to make sure it won't change the CRC's six-year analysis by too much, the CRC says. If it does, the project warns, "additional significant impacts could result in the need for additional analysis," that would add months to the project. The project's spent more than $160 million, and its monthly bill is running over $2 million.

The pitch wasn't bought by all Washington lawmakers on the Columbia River Crossing oversight committee today.

Reporter Eric Florip of The Columbian tweeted that  Sen. Curtis King (R, Wash.), used "closing comments to rip the CRC's transparency and process to this point."

Still, the project says in its release that it plans to put in a permit application to the Coast Guard in January, and expects to get it by mid to late 2013. Construction, it says, will start in late 2014, “provided funding is secured.”