CRC mitigation talks go beyond big manufacturers

Fourth company seeking to strike a deal with bridge project

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When the Columbia River Crossing announced mitigation deals with two upstream manufacturers this month, many supporters of the project touted the news as a major step forward. Two down, one to go, they said, referring to a third manufacturer that remains in negotiations.

But the sentiment overlooked a fourth company still looking to strike a deal of its own with the CRC.

JT Marine, a Vancouver-based marine contractor, began mitigation talks with project officials last fall. At issue is how much the CRC will pay the company to reconfigure one of its construction barges that wouldn't fit under the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement as planned.

The stakes don't appear as high in JT Marine's case. But like other negotiations, the outcome could play a role as the CRC asks the blessing of the agency that essentially holds veto power over the project through permitting authority: the U.S. Coast Guard.

JT Marine, a family-owned shipyard, operates out of Vancouver's Columbia Business Center just upstream of the I-5 Bridge. Among its fleet is the DB Taylor, a construction vessel fitted with a huge crane that can only be lowered to a height of 131 feet. The $3.4 billion CRC would reduce the maximum clearance under I-5 from 178 feet to 116 feet above low water.

The CRC brought in a naval architect to help redesign the crane to fit under the new bridge without losing its capacity or reach, according to documents submitted to the Coast Guard earlier this year.

Project leaders hope to have a mitigation agreement in place this summer. It's unclear how much it may cost to rebuild the vessel. A JT Marine representative declined to comment.

Much more attention has swirled around three of JT Marine's neighbors at the Columbia Business Center. Greenberry Industrial, Oregon Iron Works and Thompson Metal Fab all say they'd be hurt by the proposed height of a new I-5 bridge, which would be too low for the companies' largest products to fit underneath. Mitigation discussions largely focused on how much in taxpayer money the CRC would pay the companies as compensation.

The CRC has inked deals with Greenberry and Oregon Iron Works. But the businesses and the CRC so far haven't released details of those deals, including the cost to taxpayers. The Columbian and others have filed public records requests seeking the completed mitigation agreements.

Thompson Metal Fab, which has said relocating downstream of I-5 is its only option to stay viable, remains in negotiations.

The mitigation talks continue as the Coast Guard mulls whether to approve a crucial bridge permit the CRC needs to move forward. As part of its review, the Coast Guard hosted a pair public meetings this month and accepted comments until last week. In all, the agency received more than 220 comments -- most urging the Coast Guard to deny the permit.

The four Columbia Business Center companies are the only four entities that have entered direct mitigation talks with the CRC, said project spokeswoman Mandy Putney. But they're not the only river users who say they'd be adversely affected by the project.

In separate letters to the Coast Guard, Alliance Steel Distributors and Grating Fabricators -- two companies that do business with Thompson Metal Fab and others -- said the entire "fabricating cluster" there would suffer if one or more major tenants were to pack up and leave.

For Schooner Creek Boat Works, the CRC represents an uncertain -- and possibly bleak -- future, said director of operations Chris Bakken. The boat builder and marine yard is located just downstream of I-5 on Portland's Hayden Island. But most of its customers are upstream of the bridge, Bakken said.

While the new bridge is under construction -- a process that's expected to take more than six years -- clearance will be even lower than the eventual 116 feet planners have envisioned. Construction will block both main barge channels for 21 months, requiring a bridge lift for any clearance above 39 feet, according to the Coast Guard. For another 27 months after that, vertical clearance will be restricted to 100 feet, the agency said.

That could prompt Schooner Creek's customers to put off maintenance of their vessels, Bakken said. The result is less cash flow for the company that currently employs about 25 workers, he added.

"It's a very long period," Bakken said of construction, scheduled to begin in late 2014. "If it's half as bad as it could be, I see our future as being dim."

Even when the bridge is done, Schooner Creek isn't totally in the clear, Bakken said. The company has a 135-foot mast in its yard that belongs to a vessel it plans to rebuild, he said.

The CRC has identified Schooner Creek in previous documents mentioning "one possible future sailboat" the company may build. But the project doesn't consider Schooner Creek a directly impacted river user, and has no plans for mitigation, according to documents.

The CRC as planned would result in a lower clearance than any other Columbia River bridge up to The Dalles. But beyond that, height is "very, very seldom" an issue for barges originating farther upstream, said Gary Neal, general manager of the Port of Morrow in Boardman, Ore. That's because loads are already limited by bridges with lower clearance than the proposed I-5 Bridge replacement, he said.

The Port of Morrow is a supporter of the CRC as a way to improve intermodal transportation, Neal said. "It's a project that needs to be taken care of," he said.

The CRC has said a 116-foot-high bridge would not affect the vast majority of river users. It will be up to the Coast Guard to determine whether the project meets the "reasonable needs" of navigation on the river. The agency is expected to make its decision on the bridge permit application by Sept. 30.

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