Official: Planned I-5 bridge too low

Coast Guard says clearance won’t meet needs of ships

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Plans for the Columbia River Crossing do not include a bridge high enough to meet the “reasonable needs” of the myriad ships that ply the busy waterway, the U.S. Coast Guard has told project officials.

It’s news that has put a halt on the Coast Guard giving an essential permit to allow construction of the $3.5 billion project, and most certainly means the bridge will have to be at least somewhat, if not significantly, higher.

In a worst-case scenario, adding height could add up to $150 million to the price tag; cause problems with the flight paths of Portland International Airport and Pearson Field; and add to the footprints of the highway ramps in downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island.

Though the project has known since 2006 that some river users -- including Vancouver’s Thompson Metal Fab -- have called for more clearance, staff forged ahead with a plan for only 95 feet of clearance.

An outside project oversight group said in a December report obtained by The Columbian that the permit problem “represents a new risk” to the project’s already flagging time schedule. Transportation leaders have said construction will likely be delayed until 2014.

The Coast Guard’s top bridge permitting official, who took his post in July, said this week a 95-foot-high Interstate 5 bridge doesn’t allow for current and future commerce needs. As such, the CRC must go back and re-evaluate data on who uses the waterways.

That the project was aware some ships needed more clearance and didn’t plan for higher clearance is “very unusual,” said Randall Overton, bridge administrator for the Coast Guard’s 13th District, based in Seattle.

But the CRC’s director said Wednesday that the height issue has come as a surprise -- project staff had been working under what it thought was an agreement with the Coast Guard that 95 feet would be acceptable.

“We’re a bit dismayed to get this comment from the new bridge administrator for the Coast Guard 13th District,” CRC Director Nancy Boyd said. “It did take us by surprise. We’ve been working with the previous administrator all along.”

She said the project’s initial studies are showing that the problem may be solved by raising the bridge just a few feet, and then offering mitigation to other affected users.

Metal Fab needs 125

Among those river users who have broadcast their need for a taller bridge is Thompson Metal Fab, located along the Columbia’s banks.

The manufacturer takes on jobs that include massive oil rigs to be sent to Alaska (as it did in several pieces last year) and Asia, President John Rudi said Thursday.

“We had notified CRC as far back as 2006 that we were looking for at least a 125-foot clearance,” Rudi said.

Rudi said his company, which employs 250 to 300 people, will lose its competitiveness in bidding if it can’t move large projects under the I-5 bridge. He said he can’t imagine what would mitigate for the loss of his ability to move his product to sea.

“My overall pitch to the CRC was: Maybe you decide that our business is just one small business, but for the larger good, we need to (raise the bridge),” Overton said. “It was short-sighted of whoever said we’re going to make it 95 feet because we’re going to save some money. This is the only major navigable river in the Western United States. What you’re doing is choking commerce that you may not even know is around.”

The CRC did a study on river users, which it released in a 2008 Navigation Technical Report. It noted “infrequent” clearance needs of 100 to 110 feet by marine contractors. But the vast majority of vessels -- tug and tow boats, tall sailing ships, cruise and passenger ships -- needed far less headroom.

“There are no apparent significant adverse impacts from the (95 foot) vertical clearance,” the 2008 report read.

Overton said that including Thompson Metal, he’s also heard from three or four other users that need more clearance.

And that’s the clincher in issuing a permit, he said. The Columbia River isn’t like a highway, where overpasses sometimes create clearance issues for trucks.

“You can’t really compare a roadway to a waterway,” said Overton, adding the Columbia is the only route for ships. “You can’t really go around. If (Thompson Metal) had a project they want to bid on, and it’s too big to fit under a bridge, they couldn’t get the project.”

Clearance above, below

The CRC is stuck in an unenviable sandwich of regulations and bureaucracy in the water below and in the sky above, threading a needle between the Coast Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“We are just trying to optimize impacts to aviation versus impacts to river navigation,” said Boyd, the project director. “There’s a small bubble of where you can put something.”

Tom Warne -- who headed up both an independent review panel and the bridge review panel that nixed the box-web design in favor of the deck-truss style now set to be built -- said he didn’t see any lack of diligence from planning staff about the height.

As his group did its review of plans, “I think the CRC sincerely felt like they had a deal with the Coast Guard, and we accepted that,” Warne said.

Overton, the Coast Guard’s bridge administrator, said his predecessor, Austin Pratt, did tell him the CRC asked if it should study a 95-foot bridge.

“You can study any height you want. We can’t tell you what to study and what not to study,” Overton said.

It’s true no deal was set in stone: the Coast Guard cannot give formal permits and review until after the formal federal Record of Decision, which gives the nod to major highway projects. That happened in December 2011.

Big impact

If the Columbia River Crossing must go much higher -- say to 125 feet -- the fallout is sure to be swift.

The on- and offramps would have to be extended to compensate for the increased height, meaning downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island would be overshadowed even more than planned.

Rudi, of Thompson Metal Fab, said that the money would be worth the potential millions or billions lost by businesses that can’t make it under a shorter span.

The company president said he’s a supporter of the CRC, including plans for light rail, but that the bridge height is a grave mistake in the name of savings.

“If you’re looking to save money, the easier course of action is to keep as low profile as possible,” he said. “But they at least need to acknowledge what the sacrifices are going to be. The sacrifice is going to be Thompson Metal … it’s also going to limit potential commerce down the river.”

But Warne questioned the public policy of spending millions and impacting two cities for what he said amounts to an occasional need by a private company.

“Almost everything can be dismantled (to make clearance) it’s just a matter of wanting to and cost,” Warne said. “Should we spend $150 million so this drill rig can go underneath the bridge unimpeded? Where’s the public good in that?”

Boyd said she doesn’t think it will come to all that.

Initial study results show a height increase of three to five feet, plus mitigation for those who still won’t fit, may do the trick at much less cost and impact. She did not elaborate on what mitigation might be.

“I think that there might be a combination of mitigation for certain users and some engineering refinements, where even a few feet might make a difference for some of these users,” Boyd said. “Again, we’re still very early on in this collection of recent data, but it sure looks like to me like there’s a resolvable resolution.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542; http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall;andrea.damewood@columbian.com.