Coast Guard raises concerns with CRC work plan

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Updated: September 20, 2012, 7:11 PM

 
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U.S. Coast Guard letter

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U.S. Coast Guard officials have raised serious concerns about the Columbia River Crossing’s plan to tackle the still-unresolved question of the bridge’s height.

In a letter last week, Rear Adm. K.A. Taylor outlined a series of qualms and corrections the CRC will have to address before the Coast Guard, which holds permitting authority over the bridge, signs on. Among the biggest: a “significant potential misunderstanding” on the timing of that permit application, according to the Coast Guard.

A draft work plan, sent to authorities last month, assumed that CRC staff would submit a bridge permit application late this year, while continuing discussions with impacted river users into 2013. The idea was to allow talks to “substantially” wrap up before the permit is issued and keep the project on track for major construction in 2014.

But that’s not how the process works, according to Taylor, the Coast Guard’s district commander.

“As a point of clarification, the Coast Guard cannot accept a permit application while ‘mitigation discussions with potentially impacted river users’ continue,” Taylor wrote. “The Coast Guard must know what the mitigation measures are before it can consider a permit application.”

That leaves a lot of work — potentially consuming a lot of time — before the CRC can get permission to build the centerpiece of the $3.5 billion project. The CRC must complete its river impact analysis 60 days before turning in the bridge permit application, said Coast Guard bridge administrator Randall Overton. Once the formal application is filed — assuming the previous work passes muster — it would likely take at least eight months for the Coast Guard to process it, Overton said.

Will that affect the overall project time line, already delayed numerous times? That’s too early to tell, said CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney.

“It doesn’t change the fact that we need to move forward and complete the technical analysis,” she said.

Earlier plans for 95 feet of fixed clearance over the Columbia were rejected by the Coast Guard and river users. They said that plan doesn’t meet the navigation and economic needs. Last month, CRC planners indicated they could build as high as 110 feet without significantly altering project plans. But some users, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Vancouver-based manufacturer Thompson Metal Fab, have said that’s still not enough head room to meet their current needs.

At some point above 110 feet, a major retooling of CRC bridge plans would require new studies and add as much as $200 million to the price tag, according to project leaders. That could partially or completely undo $160 million in previous planning work.

The flap comes as design work continues on the controversial Interstate 5 Bridge replacement, which would also extend light rail into downtown Vancouver and rebuild the freeway on both sides of the Columbia River. CRC leaders have asked state lawmakers for support amid major financial and logistical questions. Many federal officials have already indicated they’re on board.

In the Coast Guard letter, Rear Adm. Taylor urged the project planners to consider river users’ needs based on recent data, not a 2004 survey he said “was not comprehensive.” His letter also suggested the CRC should focus more on changing its own design before expecting river users to change because of it.

“It’s not incumbent upon the users to adapt. They’re there operating on the river today,” Overton said. An ideal first step, he added, “is to avoid those impacts altogether.”

It’s unclear how long CRC planners expect to negotiate with river users before settling on a new bridge height. A draft time line submitted last month showed those discussions going “well into” next year. Putney said the project will continue to use the work plan as its guide.

Any final outcome will have to meet the approval of the Coast Guard before the process moves forward. Coast Guard and CRC officials plan to meet face-to-face in the coming weeks to ensure that expectations are clear on both ends, Overton said.

“We’ve been in pretty constant communication with them,” Overton said. “The lines of communication are open.”

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