Limbo Dance

CRC officials have spent millions to overcome a bridge design that's too low. They still don't have it right.

When Oregon lawmakers recently agreed to hand over $450 million for the Columbia River Crossing, they put a condition on the money: Settle questions about how high the bridge needs to be.

CRC officials have spent more than $165 million planning the $3.4 billion project, but they failed to design a bridge tall enough to satisfy federal law and allow for the river's ship traffic.

The project's backers assured state legislators this was a problem that was all but solved. Gov. John Kitzhaber assured a legislative committee Feb. 11 the CRC has been "studied and analyzed and restudied and reanalyzed. The result is a project that's ready to be built."

But documents obtained by WW suggest the proposed CRC spans are not only too low, the project hasn't come close to fixing the problem.

In January, CRC officials applied for a permit from the U.S. Coast Guard, which has the authority to decide whether or not the bridge's clearance—originally designed at 95 feet but now proposed at 116—will obstruct too many ships.

Planners spent more than a year and $1 million getting the permit application ready. 

Now comes the Coast Guard's response: The application isn't even close to being adequate—it's full of holes and incomplete answers.

The letter, sent March 8 to the directors of Oregon and Washington's departments of transportation, guarantees even more delays in the project, which is trying to get the bridge height approved by Sept. 30. Meanwhile, the CRC project burns through money—$2.9 million alone in December, according to project documents.

The Coast Guard letter cites three major flaws in the CRC's application. But the most glaring oversight is the CRC's failure to fully evaluate the biggest issue involving the bridge height: the number of jobs it would put in jeopardy.

"The application identifies a projected financial impact to three industrial fabricators, but does not provide the underlying data or analysis that supports it,” Rear Adm. K.A. Taylor wrote in the letter. 

Four manufacturers operate on the Washington side of the river at the Columbia Business Center, with 4,000 employees earning $300 million in salaries, according to a letter to the Coast Guard by business center operator Killian Pacific.

CRC officials say they could pay the businesses $30 million to $116 million to "mitigate" their losses.

Three companies—Thompson Metal Fab, Oregon Iron Works, and Greenberry Industrial—manufacture massive offshore oil platforms. Each needs well more than 116 feet of clearance to move the rigs they manufacture about a mile upriver from the current Interstate Bridge.

John Rudi, president of Thompson Metal Fab, says the only mitigation that will work is to move his company's entire production downstream.

Oregon Iron Works Vice President Tom Hickman says that his company isn't willing to move, but could move some assembly work.

"It is unfortunate that the design effort got so far down the road before they dealt with the height and clearance issues," Hickman tells WW.

The Coast Guard will decide if the project runs afoul of federal law prohibiting bridges that "unreasonably obstruct the free navigation of the waterway over which it is constructed."

But the Coast Guard letter by Taylor also faults the CRC for failings in its forecasting of future river users, and for not having worked out a resolution with the large manufacturers.

CRC officials didn't respond to WW's requests for comment.

The states of Oregon and Washington have been pushing plans for the CRC for years. The new bridge and accompanying freeway interchanges are intended to reduce congestion along Interstate 5 and replace the aging spans. The project also includes extending MAX light rail from Portland to Vancouver.

But the project has been mired in controversy over its costs, its faulty traffic and revenue projections, and its design.

The Oregon Legislature in the last two weeks approved $450 million as a down payment for the project. But Washington state lawmakers have not yet done so.

Rudi says he knows that since planners already made a crucial error in height, he must stay vigilant. 

"I've been spending a considerable amount of our own money, time and resources to put up a defense," Rudi says. "If we sit back and do nothing, it could put us out of business.” 

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