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Port of Vancouver, importers of oversize cargo push for upgrades to I-84

By , Columbian business reporter
Published:
6 Photos
Aerial photos taken by a drone follow the progress of a wind turbine blade as it leaves the Port of Vancouver in the early morning hours of April 1. Wind energy components imported at the port are typically trucked farther inland using Interstate 84 through the Columbia River Gorge.
Aerial photos taken by a drone follow the progress of a wind turbine blade as it leaves the Port of Vancouver in the early morning hours of April 1. Wind energy components imported at the port are typically trucked farther inland using Interstate 84 through the Columbia River Gorge. (Courtesy of the Port of Vancouver) Photo Gallery

The Port of Vancouver has spent the past few years positioning itself as a major import destination for wind energy components, touting its massive harbor cranes and large storage areas for turbine blades and tower segments.

But a big part of the pitch isn’t about the port itself, but rather the next leg of the trip.

Recent shipments have included blades up to 77 meters in length, according to port chief commercial officer Alex Strogen, which creates a whole host of challenges for the drivers who have to take them from the port to wind farms hundreds of miles inland.

The port’s push into wind energy has coincided with its involvement as a founding member of a group called the Columbia River High, Wide and Heavy Corridor, whose mission is to draw attention to the Interstate 84 corridor’s capacity for oversize freight.

The group has been around for about five years, according to Erik Zander of heavy machinery transportation company Omega Morgan, another founding member. It grew out of discussions in the local shipping industry about the need to make the I-84 route more well-known.

“I think if you go back a decade, the first thing we did was we had a good quality marketing effort just to explain to shippers out there ‘this corridor can already handle big, tall, heavy, wide cargo. You guys should really consider it,’” he said.

That effort has been fairly successful, he said, with more large cargo utilizing the corridor in the past decade. The group is now ready to embark on its next step, Zander said, which is to advocate for upgrades to the corridor to make it even more appealing to companies that need to move oversize loads.

The I-84 advantage

Turbines have grown increasingly large as the industry has developed, resulting in longer and longer blades — and longer loads when trucked. Strogen recalled dealing with 33-meter blades when he first starting handling wind imports. Today’s blades more than double that.

Each trip involving oversized cargo has to be carefully planned out to ensure there will be sufficient clearance overhead and to the sides when the truck moves past tight spots, all of which has to be verified via a permitting process for oversize cargo.

Permits for I-84 are handled by the Oregon Department of Transportation’s commerce and compliance division, according to ODOT public affairs specialist David House. The division issued 62,368 single-trip permits last year, including 3,683 “super load” permits which cover cargo that is more than 16 feet wide and 150 feet long. Wind energy components accounted for 1,137 of those permits, he said.

“The most common thing is mobile homes,” he said. “Those tend to be about 14 feet wide.”

Preassembled framing and trusses also tend to require permits, he said. Power transformers are another relatively common piece of oversize cargo on I-84, Zander added, along with big liquid vessels for water purification systems and components for hydro energy projects, some of which can be in excess of 22 feet wide.

One of I-84’s most straightforward advantages for that kind of cargo is its relatively flat and low-elevation route along the river, Zander said, making it the smoothest freeway route through the Cascade Range.

The Columbia River — and farther east, the Snake River — also gives shipping companies more flexibility when planning out how to move cargo, such as by transferring it to a barge to get around specific trucking pinch points.

There’s another limiting factor that tends to come up with blade cargo, Zander added: parking. If a big cargo trip is too long to be completed in one shot, there needs to be a space where the truck driver and escort cars have room to pull over. Towing a 77-meter blade rules out a lot of places.

Blade routes

Blades and turbine tower segments leave the Port of Vancouver one at a time, typically following the same route: west on Mill Plain Boulevard through downtown Vancouver, taking Interstate 5 and state Highway 14 to Interstate 205, then crossing the Glenn Jackson Bridge and getting on I-84 east. The departures are most often scheduled for late night or very early in the morning to avoid traffic.

“You take two rights and you’re on an interstate,” Zander said.

That simple route is part of what has helped turn the port into a wind energy import hub, Strogen said — Mill Plain offers drivers a straight shot through downtown on a four-lane road with no tight turns and no overpasses.

Most of the port’s wind energy components go to wind farms in Eastern Oregon or Washington, but in 2020 some of them went all the way to western Canada, Strogen said. There are other big posts closer to those destinations, Strogen said, but they don’t have the same kind of easy freeway access.

The port’s biggest import competitors are ports on the Gulf Coast, which enjoy similarly unrestricted freeway connections, he said. Zander singled out Duluth, Minn., as the only other big competitor. That makes the Pacific Northwest the closer starting point for big cargo headed to destinations across a wide swath of the western U.S. and Canada.

“The most expensive part of the journey for cargo is when it’s going over the road,” he said.

For extra-long cargo like the blades, the turning radius becomes the biggest concern. The biggest potential choke point isn’t on I-84 itself, Strogen said — it’s the transition from I-205, because the off-ramp uses a curved tunnel to pass under the freeway.

At 77 meters, the newest blades are still able to clear the tunnel, but just barely. And with the industry trending toward longer and longer blades, planners could one day find themselves having to consider splitting up the trip and using a barge to get around the choke point.

Seeking upgrades

The trend toward bigger cargo isn’t limited to wind turbines, Zander said. Bigger tends to be better for a lot of renewable energy infrastructure, and when it comes to regular buildings, shipping modular parts can be cheaper than building something from the ground up at a remote site — but it’s always more efficient to make the parts as big as possible and grouped into as few shipments as possible.

That trend is why the group also plans to advocate to increase the cargo size limits on the corridor — starting with height. The corridor is already reasonably well-built for length, width and weight, Zander said, although there are a few odd points like the I-205 tunnel.

Height improvements can involve relocating overhead wires, raising overpasses or developing “up-and-over” routes where trucks can exit when approaching an interchange with a too-low bridge and then drive straight through an intersection with the cross-street and back down onto the freeway on the other side.

“Our goal is 24 feet” of clearance along the entire corridor, he said, but that’s a long way off. On I-84, the current limit for a trip from Vancouver out to Idaho would be 16 feet, 6 inches, although east of Boardman, Ore., there are state highway alternatives that allow for 19 feet – but it’s a longer, slower trip.

Any improvements would likely take place in phases, he said, such as trying to just bring that first segment up to 19 feet. Raising just the segment from Boardman to the Oregon state line to 24 feet would likely cost around $150 million, he said.

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