UPDATE: Herrera Beutler voices 'grave' CRC concerns to Coast Guard

Issues include planned height of I-5 Bridge replacement

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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Updated: June 12, 2013, 8:26 PM

 
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Coast Guard CRC letter

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photoU.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, issued a statement Tuesday reiterating that the Columbia River Crossing project must meet all of its funding and permitting requirements before it is eligible for federal dollars.

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U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler on Wednesday reiterated several worries and questions about the Columbia River Crossing as the U.S. Coast Guard mulls a crucial bridge permit for the $3.4 billion project.

In a letter sent to the Coast Guard, the Camas Republican highlighted what she termed “grave concerns” with the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement and its planned height. Reducing clearance under the bridge to 116 feet not only limits current businesses upriver, “but could also provide a chilling impact to future business development due to the permanent, impassable nature of the design for larger vessels and cargoes,” Herrera Beutler wrote.

The twin spans of the existing I-5 Bridge offer 178 feet of clearance when the drawbridge is lifted.

The CRC can’t move forward without a bridge permit from the Coast Guard, effectively giving the agency veto power over the project. The Coast Guard began accepting public comment in May, and hosted two meetings in Portland and Vancouver last week.

Much of the focus has centered on the CRC’s height and three major manufacturers whose largest products wouldn’t fit under the new bridge. Two of those companies, Greenberry Industrial and Oregon Iron Works, have inked mitigation agreements with the CRC. A third, Thompson Metal Fab, remains in negotiations. All three companies operate facilities at the Columbia Business Center in Vancouver.

The parties involved in those talks have disclosed few details about negotiations or the agreements already signed. Herrera Beutler suggested that the need for taxpayer-funded mitigation points to “serious design flaws” in the CRC.

“I would offer that building a bridge without adequate clearance is an unfortunate choice that could be remedied through the redesign of this project,” she wrote, without specifying how.

CRC officials have said pushing the bridge design much higher than 116 feet would make the project even more costly, dramatically alter its footprint in downtown Vancouver and encroach on federal airspace.

The three companies involved in mitigation discussions aren’t the only ones that say they’d be hurt by the CRC. Among the more than 200 comments submitted to the Coast Guard so far are letters from at least two smaller manufacturers based at the Columbia Business Center: Alliance Steel Distributors and Grating Fabricators, Inc.

In separate letters, both companies’ presidents said they benefit from being part of the “fabricating cluster” anchored by larger players at the Columbia Business Center. Losing one or more of those anchors may also push out the smaller companies that do business with them, the executives said. Thompson, a supporter of the CRC, has said it may have to relocate downstream of Interstate 5 if the bridge is built as proposed.

“Without the anchor tenants of this cluster, such as Thompson Metal Fab, it is unlikely that the vitality that this cluster provides in Southwest Washington will remain,” wrote Grating Fabricators President Rhonda Abernathy.

Unlike Thompson, Grating Fabricators and Alliance Steel Distributors haven’t taken part in direct mitigation discussions with the CRC. That’s because they aren’t considered affected river users — a threshold determined by direct impact to navigation, said CRC spokeswoman Mandy Putney.

The Coast Guard has said its charge is to protect the “reasonable needs” of navigation on the Columbia River. Herrera Beutler’s letter is not the first time she’s contacted the Coast Guard on the subject.

“The importance of protecting our river commerce, both now and in the future, cannot be understated,” Herrera Beutler wrote this week. “I urge you to do all you can to ensure that the final outcome of the permitting process protects the free navigation of the river and our regional economy.”

Herrera Beutler isn’t the only local elected official to weigh in directly to the Coast Guard since last month. State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, spoke at a public hearing in Vancouver last week. State Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, earlier submitted a written comment of his own.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Lt. Regina Caffery has said the agency doesn’t give any more weight to elected officials’ comments. “Each speaker’s comment is entered into the docket using the same process,” Caffery said in an email before last week’s meetings.

The public comment period will continue through June 20. The Coast Guard expects to make its decision on the bridge permit application by Sept. 30.

Reporter Stevie Mathieu contributed to this story.

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