CRC: New I-5 bridge clearance could be 110 feet

Ball now in Coast Guard's court; rejection could see current plans scrapped

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

As the Coast Guard and the Columbia River Crossing continue to dance over the proposed bridge height, CRC officials said Monday they found about 15 more feet of wiggle room.

Early analysis shows that the Interstate 5 bridge portion of the $3.5 billion project could be raised as high as 110 feet before $160 million in planning work would have to be partially or totally redone, the project told a meeting of the Washington Legislative Oversight Committee.

And if the Coast Guard, which holds permit authority over the bridge, isn't a willing partner at 110 feet, the impacts to Vancouver and the project as a whole would be severe. Among the potential problems are closed streets downtown and an additional $200 million in construction costs -- and possibly completely scrapping plans as they are now.

The renewed look at how high planners can construct a new bridge without running up against major consequences comes months after the Coast Guard roundly rejected the planned 95 foot height, saying it doesn't meet river user needs.

Numerous users, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several Vancouver businesses, have said they will be unable to pass under a 95-foot bridge. The current I-5 bridge allows vessels through via a lift span, which averages one lift a day.

The CRC can go to about 110 feet at a cost of about $9 million to $22 million. Beyond that, costs increase tenfold or more.

In a letter to the Coast Guard dated last Thursday, the Oregon and Washington departments of transportation listed the upshot of a bridge that could go as high as 125 feet:

• Approximately $150 million to $200 million in increased costs.

• In Vancouver, Fifth Street would be closed, and the Columbia Park and Ride would be accessed solely from Columbia Street, causing operational issues.

• An increased elevation of 30 to 40 feet of the interstate over downtown Vancouver, resulting in additional impacts to downtown, including closed Sixth Street access to southbound I-5.

• A steeper profile grade for the interstate would exceed the 4 percent recommended in highway safety guides, and deviate from state standards.

• Increasing the grade might require connecting on- and offramps on the main river crossing with an auxiliary lane.

• Light rail's maximum grade of 6 percent would lengthen the line from 500 to 1,200 feet in Washington, increasing maintenance and operation costs.

• Bicycle and pedestrian grades would steepen and lengthen on both sides of river.

• It is likely that one or more light rail stations would need to be re-evaluated and redesigned.

But CRC Director Nancy Boyd said that the project's most recent survey of river users shows that one company said it needs 160 feet of clearance.

And if the Coast Guard demands more than 125 feet, state Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond said the solution is a bridge lift -- the elimination of which is one of the CRC's current main selling points.

"We would have to go back to a lift span to avoid every impact that was on this river," Hammond said.

"Adding a lift span to the proposed deck truss bridge and alignment would result in a structure of unprecedented complexity with the associated technical challenges," the CRC's letter read. "A lift span would increase the cost of the project by approximately $250 million."

Still, project leaders stressed to legislators, who will likely decide the funding fate of the CRC next year, that the Coast Guard is charged with meeting the "reasonable needs of navigation, not all needs."

But Rep. Mike Armstrong, R-Wenatchee, chairman of the oversight committee, said that's not what he's heard.

"I've heard from the Coast Guard that if it impedes any current traffic on the river, they're not going to allow it," Armstrong said.

He also questioned the need for light rail, saying cutting the lower decks would also add height. He was met with answers from the staff that the $850 million the CRC hopes to get from the Federal Transit Administration for light rail would also help pay for bridge construction.

The Coast Guard did not return calls for comment Monday.

Vancouver Democratic Rep. Jim Moeller said he can't imagine a lift span becoming part of the new plans.

"I can't imagine that we'd discuss adding a lift bridge … and spend $3.5 billion to do it," Moeller said. "At what point do we start to look at a different type of bridge?"

Going from 95 feet to 110 feet cuts in half the number of impacted users, project leaders said.

Mitigation or other work would be necessary for the remaining affected vessels. Among the options: moving businesses such as Vancouver's Thompson Metal Fab, which has asked for at least 125 clearance, downstream.

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, wondered how wise -- and expensive -- such measures may be.

"At what point does it become more expensive to do mitigation than to put in a lift?" Clibborn asked.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers previously said it needs 116 feet of clearance to accommodate its dredging vessels that pass under the bridge. But a naval architect found that at least one of those, the Yaquina, could be retrofitted to safely clear a lower height, according to the CRC.

The Corps is looking into the idea, said spokeswoman Amy Echols. But first it must determine whether such a plan is even possible, and whether there's a funding model that would allow it to happen, she said. The Corps remains in regular collaboration with CRC officials, Echols said.

Modifying a dredging vessel isn't as simple as lopping a few feet off the top. The Yaquina carries with it radar and other crucial equipment, Echols said, and is used in work that goes well beyond the Columbia River.

"We have a significant amount of technology attached to the top of that ship," Echols said. "It's an ocean-going vessel, so it's certainly significant to us."

The news follows the White House on Monday making official its announcement that the Columbia River Crossing will be among a handful of transportation projects expedited as part of President Barack Obama's "We Can't Wait" initiative. President Bush made a similar declaration about expediting the project in 2008; however, CRC staff said Monday that the soonest the CRC will break ground is December 2014.

Columbian staff writer Eric Florip contributed to this story.