A Bridge Too Low

The CRC isn't eager to redesign a bridge that should be taller.

The proposed Columbia River Crossing has turned into a high-stakes limbo dance: How low can the bridge go?

CRC officials say they are trying to fix one of the most embarrassing problems with the troubled $3.5 billion Interstate 5 project: The freeway bridges as now designed aren't high enough to accommodate some Columbia River ships. 

The project went ahead with designs for spans with 95-foot clearances despite warnings from the U.S. Coast Guard the bridges needed to be higher to handle anticipated river traffic.

CRC officials have since told state lawmakers and the public they want to address the Coast Guard's concerns by building higher spans with clearances of up to 110 feet. 

But records obtained by WW show that 110 feet is still too low to satisfy the Coast Guard. And CRC officials—rather than work to redesign the bridges—are trying to get river users to change their practices. In one case, they're hoping two tall-masted ships that routinely sail on the Columbia will dismantle their masts before going under the too-low bridges.

The CRC includes two I-5 spans, light rail between Portland and downtown Vancouver, a bike and pedestrian bridge, and five miles of highway interchange improvements.

CRC planning costs have already topped $160 million, but there probably won't be a solution to the height problem before Oregon lawmakers are asked to commit $450 million as the state's share of the troubled project.

With the number of vehicles using the current bridge far below earlier estimates, projected tolls to use the new spans will fall short as much as $600 million.

And on Nov. 6, Clark County voters rejected a 0.1 percent sales tax hike to cover light-rail operations. Clark County's GOP lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.), want a redesigned project that cuts out light rail.

The next day, CRC officials released a report intended to convince the Coast Guard that a 110-foot clearance would be high enough. 

But records show the Coast Guard had already rejected the idea. In an Oct. 23 letter obtained by WW, the Coast Guard told the Federal Highway Administration it wouldn't approve any span that blocks river traffic.

The Coast Guard hasn't said how high the CRC spans must be. The current Interstate Bridge, when lifted, goes to 178 feet; the Glenn Jackson Bridge clears 144 feet. A midlevel bridge (with 95-to-110-foot clearance) has "a low probability of meeting the reasonable needs of navigation or of obtaining a Coast Guard permit," wrote D.A. Goward, the Coast Guard's marine transportation director.

The CRC's analysis says a 125-foot clearance would add $176 million to the project's price tag. Adding even more to the height would require a new design and environmental study process, as well as reconstruction of parts of downtown Vancouver and the North Portland Harbor.

For tall sailboats and yachts, the CRC proposes pulling them out of the water and towing them around the bridge. Another idea: acquiring the vessel and "taking it out of service so that the user no longer has a vessel that needs to transit under the new bridges."

It's not clear whether the project budget includes money for mitigation. CRC officials didn't respond to WW's calls for comment.

One ship that can't operate under the current CRC design is the Yaquina, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge that needs 116 feet of clearance. The CRC suggests the Corps buy a smaller dredge, contract out dredging to private companies, or shorten the Yaquina's height.

All of those ideas might take an act of Congress—literally. "Changing [the dredge] would involve a process that would involve Congress," Army Corps spokeswoman Amy Echols says. No matter what, she says, just finding a fix for the Yaquina is likely to take months, if not longer.

The CRC's mitigation plan for the tall-mast ships Lady Washington and Hawaiian Chieftain, based in Aberdeen, Wash., call for the ships' crews to lower the main masts, then raise them again on the other side of the bridge.

That idea hardly seems practical to Joe Follansbee, spokesman for Historical Seaport, the nonprofit that operates the ships. He says under the best conditions, it would take two days for one ship to pass under the bridge.

"If you're not working for two days, you're not earning revenue for two days," Follansbee says. “We have to hustle for every dollar.” 

WWeek 2015

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