In our view: Bridge Height Fiasco Erupts

One river-clearance meeting could’ve prevented the newest CRC controversy

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Any forehead-smacking protestations by local residents about an early arrival of April Fools’ Day at the Columbia River Crossing are perfectly understandable. Friday’s headline on the front page of The Columbian was stunning: “Official: Planned bridge too low.”The CRC is planning a 95-foot clearance over the river for the new Interstate 5 bridge, but the Coast Guard says that’s not enough and has yet to approve a crucial permit to allow construction to begin. Only now, many years into the costly and oft-delayed project, are these two entities recognizing their dramatic difference of opinion.

How the CRC and the Coast Guard could have been singing so long from different pages of the bridge-replacement hymnal is astounding to anyone who supports this endeavor, as well as to all taxpayers regardless of their views about the project.

How much more the project will be delayed, and how much more than $3.5 billion will be needed, remains to be seen. As Andrea Damewood reported, building the bridge higher could add up to $150 million, although CRC Director Nancy Boyd seems to believe the problem is not insurmountable: “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. Again, we’re still very early on in this collection of recent data, but it sure looks to me like there’s a resolvable resolution.”

But why only now, and not much earlier? The predictable he-said, she-said blame deflection is fully engaged. Coast Guard officials say they never gave the green light on a 95-foot clearance and, in fact, they could not give formal permits and review until after the federal Record of Decision, which was granted in December. Boyd says the CRC is “a bit dismayed” and the Coast Guard’s opinion “did take us by surprise.” Thompson Metal Fab President John Rudi says his company “had notified CRC as far back as 2006 that we were looking for at least a 125-foot clearance.”

And these aren’t the only stakeholders. Federal Aviation Administration officials have been strict about protecting flight paths of Portland International Airport and Pearson Field. A taller bridge would re-open that bureaucratic briar patch, although realistically speaking, the current bridge technically violates air space restrictions.

Here’s what is really amazing: The CRC prides itself on outreach and communication and yet, for all the hundreds of meetings that have occurred, it appears one critical meeting went unscheduled, the one where key agencies discuss and agree on river clearance of the new bridge. Even a phone call or two could’ve prevented the shocked responses that only now prevail.

It’s up to the CRC to resolve these differences expeditiously and with minimal, if any, cost increase. No stakeholder will have all its expectations met. Compromises likely will be necessary. But it’s time to get off the dime and accelerate this project toward ground-breaking.

Enough with the delays. Enough with the surprises. Yes, this is a complicated project. We get that. But it ain’t this complicated.