The U.S. Coast Guard on Friday granted a crucial permit allowing the Columbia River Crossing to build a new Interstate 5 bridge between Vancouver and Portland.
The agency’s blessing had been one of the major hurdles still standing in front of the project, declared dead three months ago. Instead, the $2.7 billion effort appears to be gaining momentum with Oregon now in the lead. Washington largely pulled out of the CRC financially earlier this year after lawmakers in Olympia adjourned without authorizing any money for the project.
The Coast Guard’s blessing clears the way for a new Columbia River span with 116 feet of clearance over low water. CRC planners scrambled to reach that number last year after initially designing a fixed span at just 95 feet high — a level dismissed as too low for the economic and navigational needs of the river. The existing I-5 Bridge offers up to 178 feet of head room when lifted.
The revised height of 116 feet still isn’t high enough to accommodate all existing traffic on the river. Earlier this year, the CRC reached mitigation deals with three upriver manufacturers whose largest products wouldn’t fit under the proposed bridge. The agreements would pay the companies a combined $86.4 million.
Vancouver-based Thompson Metal Fab would receive the largest share of that, at almost $50 million. But the manufacturer has supported the CRC, and Thompson President John Rudi said Friday he welcomed the news of an approved bridge permit.
“I think it’s great,” Rudi said. “We worked awfully hard with CRC and the state to try to work out a mitigation that would preserve the capacity of our business and preserve the jobs, and still allow the community to build a bridge. And I think the bridge is critical.”
Rudi said Thompson plans to build a second “satellite” facility downstream of the new bridge, from which it would ship its largest products. The exact location of that site hasn’t been determined, Rudi said, but Thompson plans to keep all of its operations in Clark County.
The Coast Guard’s approval came to the dismay of CRC opponents who have called the project an economic liability to the region. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, who has repeatedly raised concerns about the project, was left without an adequate response from the Coast Guard, according to her staff.
Herrera Beutler had earlier asked for six months’ worth of Coast Guard communications on the CRC. Spokesman Casey Bowman said a letter from the agency arrived late Friday, but the request wasn’t filled. Immediate attempts to contact the Coast Guard were unsuccessful, he said.
“Questions have been asked whether the Coast Guard was improperly influenced to deviate from standard procedures to issue this permit,” Bowman said in an email. “Why would a federal agency ignore an information request from a member of Congress for internal communication? It speaks volumes that this agency would send information on a Friday night after its phones are turned off.”
Other federal leaders praised the permit decision, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
“The Coast Guard’s decision to issue a permit for the CRC is an important step for this project and validates the years of work the local community spent crafting the current bridge design,” said Sean Coit, a spokesman for Murray. “Senator Murray has worked for years to replace the antiquated I-5 bridge, and she remains committed to providing the federal resources necessary for this critical project.”
The bridge permit includes several conditions. Among them is a requirement that construction begin within three years. CRC planners have said they hope to break ground in late 2014.
Friday’s announcement comes on the heels of another victory for the CRC this week. Thursday, the C-Tran Board of Directors approved a plan to finance the operation of light rail in Vancouver as part of the project. And the Oregon Department of Transportation announced separately Friday that the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration have confirmed that the revised CRC falls within prior reviews, and doesn’t need additional analysis to go forward.
Those developments now put the spotlight squarely on the Oregon Legislature. Lawmakers there still must reauthorize their own financial commitment to the CRC, which is set to expire Sept. 30 without Washington at the table.
The legislature will convene in Salem for a special session Monday, but it’s unclear whether the CRC will be included.