CRC zeroes in on a height for bridge

Additional 20 feet of clearance won't meet all users' needs

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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The Columbia River Crossing hopes one of these is the magic number: 115 or 116 feet.

That's about how high planners of the $3.5 billion project say they can build a new Interstate 5 bridge without creating significantly more impact to neighboring communities and the environment. Using that height — 20 feet higher than project leaders had long assumed — would add about $30 million to the project cost, according to the CRC.

CRC leaders presented their analysis of a 115- or 116-foot-high bridge to a group of Washington state lawmakers Monday. They'll use that number as the basis for the bridge permit application the CRC expects to file in January, said Oregon project director Kris Strickler.

The U.S. Coast Guard holds permit authority over the bridge, and must approve that height for the CRC to move forward. But the CRC still has plenty of work to do if it hopes to secure that approval next year, according to a Coast Guard official.

In a letter sent to CRC leaders last week, Coast Guard Rear Admiral J.A. Servidio asked for more detail on how the bridge would affect navigation on the Columbia River. That means a better explanation of how the CRC plans to work around river users, and better justification if they don't, according to the letter, copies of which were not distributed at Monday's meeting.

A bridge with 115 or 116 feet of headroom would still affect vessels from between nine and 11 river users, according to the CRC. Going higher than that would affect fewer vessels. But too much higher would mean major logistical hurdles for the project itself and as much as $176 million in additional costs, according to the CRC.

Among those affected are three major Columbia River manufacturers — Thompson Metal Fab, Greenberry Industries and Oregon Iron Works. During Monday's meeting, several lawmakers implored the CRC: Do everything you can to avoid squeezing those operations.

"I can't underline enough how important those jobs, and those types of jobs, are to our community," said state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver.

Vancouver-based Thompson Metal Fab was one of two entities to take legal action against the CRC this year, saying the project didn't do enough to consider the economic needs of river users. The manufacturer has said for years it needs at least 125 feet of clearance, and more recently it indicated future jobs could push that number to 153 feet or more.

The current I-5 Bridge allows 178 feet of clearance when lifted.

CRC plans had long centered around a bridge with 95 feet of fixed clearance. But the Coast Guard and others rejected that as too low to meet existing navigation and economic needs. CRC planners spent months analyzing various heights up to 125 feet before zeroing in on the figures presented Monday.

Heavy criticism

Monday also was the final meeting of Washington's legislative oversight committee on the CRC. The group's Oregon counterpart will meet for the final time today.

Washington committee members said they've learned a lot about the project and the process to this point. But Monday's closing comments made it clear not everyone is happy with the result.

State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, leveled heavy criticism at a project he said has lacked transparency and given muddled answers to crucial questions. He cited the evolving height discussion as one example, arguing planners should have done their homework and recognized the issue sooner.

"Looking at the impacts, I can't understand how we ever started at 95 (feet)," King said.

The project, which would also extend light rail into Vancouver and rebuild five miles of freeway, still faces major financial questions at the federal, state and local level. Project officials need to protect taxpayer dollars in case current assumptions don't pencil out, King said.

"I'm with everybody on this panel that we need a new bridge," he said. "But I want to get it right the first time, and I want to get it right for the citizens."

State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, echoed King's concerns, and said she'd like to see continued oversight of the CRC.

Other committee members mostly praised the oversight process in characterizing the CRC as a compromise project. It's right to ask questions, said state Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island, but at some point the project must move forward to benefit the region.

The questions will continue into the upcoming legislative session, where the CRC could become a key issue. Project leaders hope to start construction in late 2014.


Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com.