The Interstate Bridge Replacement Program office has received written federal guidance that restricts the project’s ability to substantially alter two guiding documents that were drafted for its predecessor, the Columbia River Crossing.
The purpose and need and vision and values statements are early development documents that outline the key problems that the project seeks to remedy — such as safety, congestion and seismic vulnerability — and they become part of the criteria used to evaluate various bridge configurations and settle on a preferred option.
Program administrator Greg Johnson broke the news at a Thursday meeting of the project’s Executive Steering Group, displaying excerpts from the federal letter in a slide show. The letter confirms what the project office had been told in recent conversations with federal officials, he said.
The letter stated that “changes to the Purpose and Need section are particularly sensitive since it is so critical to determining the range of alternatives that must be considered,” and that “the proposed modifications to the [Purpose and Need] and FEIS are potentially substantial enough to require a new EIS and NEPA process.”
In other words, change it too much, and the project will need to restart the environmental review process from scratch. Doing so would push the start of construction back at least two years from the current target of 2025, according to Johnson.
That’s an outcome many members of the steering group have previously indicated that they want to avoid. Members of the bi-state legislative committee overseeing the project also indicated in meetings last year that they didn’t want to redo all of the Columbia River Crossing work if they could help it.
The Columbia River Crossing project cleared the environmental review process but collapsed without breaking ground in 2013 when the Washington Senate failed to supply the state’s portion of the funding. Washington and Oregon embarked on a renewed effort in 2019.
The program office has been aiming for an outcome in which the project would not need a full new federal environmental impact statement, and instead could use the Columbia River Crossing’s environmental impact statement along with a new supplemental environmental impact statement to account for things that have changed in the past decade, according to Johnson.
The Executive Steering Group convened late last year, followed shortly by a Community Advisory Group and Equity Advisory Group, to provide public input and advice during the early planning process, including a review of the Columbia River Crossing’s statements to assess the need for updates.
Those discussions identified a need to better address climate change and equity concerns this time around, Johnson said, and those topics were significant parts of the proposed statement modifications that the project office asked the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration to evaluate.
The federal answer leaves little room for those concerns to be addressed in the statements, but Johnson said the letter did state that the “FHWA and FTA strongly support consideration of climate change and equity in transportation projects,” and Johnson previously told The Columbian that the project office would make sure those issues played a role elsewhere in the development process.
“We may be very limited in what we can do, but the concerns regarding both climate and equity will be reflected in this process and in this document,” he told The Columbian earlier this month. “Those things, we know, are must-haves on the part of the community and our partners.”