Thursday, October 21, 2021
Oct. 21, 2021

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Port of Ridgefield’s railroad overpass work delayed

Study to assess impact on threatened deer herd must be reopened

By , Columbian Staff Writer
Published:
3 Photos
A Columbian white-tailed deer with translocation tags, left, is greeted by her fawn in the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. The deer were brought to Ridgefield starting in 2013, and have inadvertently caused a delay in the Port of Ridgefield’s overpass project, as the port has to reopen its environmental impact study to look into the project’s effect on the growing deer population.
A Columbian white-tailed deer with translocation tags, left, is greeted by her fawn in the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. The deer were brought to Ridgefield starting in 2013, and have inadvertently caused a delay in the Port of Ridgefield’s overpass project, as the port has to reopen its environmental impact study to look into the project’s effect on the growing deer population. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — Ridgefield residents have a herd of once-endangered deer to thank for the latest delay on the Pioneer Street Railroad Overpass Project, as the overpass once scheduled to wrap up by the end of this year still waits to go out to bid.

The $14 million project received its last bit of funding in February 2016, with construction expected to start in 2017 and last 12 to 18 months. The Port of Ridgefield’s project will connect Pioneer Street to the port’s property, making it easier to get from downtown to the waterfront area.

The question as to when that connection will be made is still up in the air. Port of Ridgefield CEO Brent Grening was hoping the project could go out to bid in March, but the port now has to reopen its environmental impact study, which was originally done in 2008. That means another few months before the project can go out to bid, and putting “best case scenario” for completion of the overpass on track to be done in late 2019, as long as it doesn’t hit any other delays in the process.

“Projects like this, they’re complex,” Grening said. “I’m still wanting to go to bid this year. I still think we can get there. We’re still shooting to be out this year to bid.”

The cause of the most recent delay is a herd of Columbian white-tailed deer. About 35 deer were relocated to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge starting in 2013 from the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for the Columbian White-Tailed Deer near Cathlamet, according to Christopher Lapp, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex project leader.

At the time, the deer were on the endangered species list. Since introducing them to the Ridgefield refuge, the herd has grown to 100-plus, and the deer have been downgraded from endangered to threatened.

When the environmental impact study was done in 2008, the deer weren’t in Ridgefield. The Federal Highway Administration and Federal Rail Administration, both of which have contributed funds to the project, notified the Washington State Department of Transportation, which is overseeing the project, that the port must conduct an updated environmental study on the impact on the deer.

“I share their frustration,” Lapp said. “It comes with the territory of being immediately adjacent to a national wildlife refuge. That is one of our purposes, to conserve and support the recovery of threatened and enlisted species under the Endangered Species Act.”

Lapp said he thinks the impacts of the project on the deer will be “nonsignificant or very light.”

“I don’t expect our project is going to impact the population of deer, but we have to demonstrate that,” Grening said.

The study should take another three to four months and cost somewhere between $30,000 and $35,000, according to Grening.

“It’s not necessarily a big deal, but it takes time and it takes money,” he said.

Making the issue a little more complicated is that the deer have spread out, both in the refuge and outside of it, Lapp said. They were introduced to sanctuary parts of the refuge, where guests couldn’t see them. Now, the deer roam around, and some have left the refuge altogether. Lapp estimates 90 to 95 percent of the deer still live at the refuge, which refuge staffers can keep track of since deer that were placed there in 2013 and 2014 are ear tagged. However, some of those deer now live near La Center Bottoms or the Morgan property north of the refuge, and others have swam the Columbia River to Sauvie Island.

“Because they’re off the wildlife refuge, projects in Ridgefield could impact the deer population,” Grening said.

Air rights

Another issue that’s delayed the project that still has to be dealt with is obtaining the “air rights” from BNSF Railway to construct the overpass over BNSF tracks. Grening said it was something that wasn’t discussed much in the planning of the project and then popped up.

“We had to acquire other pieces of right of way,” Grening said. “We probably could’ve done that simultaneously with these other pieces. That would’ve been ideal.”

Since the overpass will allow drivers to get to the waterfront by going over the tracks, instead of crossing them, Grening said he thought the project would be considered a relocation for the path across the tracks.

He said once the environmental study is done, acquiring the air rights is the only other step he’s aware of before the project can go out to bid.

“We’ll get through it,” Grening said.

Columbian Staff Writer
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