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News / Clark County News

I-5 Bridge Replacement Program strives for Coast Guard approval of 116-foot clearance

By Will Campbell, Columbian Associate Editor
Published: June 15, 2022, 5:45pm

Leaders of the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program expect to hear from the Coast Guard that their plans for a 116-foot bridge clearance won’t be high enough for marine traffic, but they’re planning on working toward a common goal.

Late last year, the IBR program submitted a navigation impact report to the Coast Guard that detailed how a 116-foot bridge clearance would affect the barges and boats passing under the bridge. The report included user feedback and bridge lift data. In March, the Coast Guard asked the public for further feedback on the bridge clearance option.

On Wednesday during a meeting with the Executive Steering Committee, Ray Mabey, assistant program administrator for the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program, said that he expects the Coast Guard to respond “any day now” with a statement that the bridge needs to have significantly more clearance, he said.

“That’s not a surprise that the U.S. Coast Guard’s charge is to look after river navigation needs,” said Mabey.

Challenges with a higher clearance include tighter airspace restrictions for the top of the bridge and the steepness of the bridge as it enters and exits Vancouver.

“We’re going to continue to work closely with the Coast Guard to complete more analysis of the trade-offs of a higher navigation clearance and identify options for avoiding impacts to river navigation,” Mabey said.

The bridge replacement program will respond to the Coast Guard by showing in a report of how a taller bridge would alter the plans and also how much it would cost to build, operate and maintain a moveable span — though a moveable span is not something the IBRP is realistically considering.

When bridge height was first considered during the Columbia River Crossing project a decade ago, bridge planners initially requested only 95 feet of clearance before raising the proposed level to 116 feet.

The current Interstate 5 Bridge lift span can provide up to 178 feet of river clearance, and before the project foundered, CRC officials reached a deal to pay more than $86 million to three manufacturers that would have been negatively impacted by the lower bridge. CRC officials said the payout would have cost less than raising the bridge higher or adding a drawbridge to the design.

Mabey said the bridge program doesn’t expect to receive the permit from the Coast Guard until 2025 or 2026 at the earliest.

The IBRP is still going to bring the locally preferred alternative with the 116-foot clearance to the next stage of the effort: the environmental impact process, “where the work to understand impacts and benefits of the project can be studied and quantified,” Mabey said. “Through that, we’d also be looking to refine the design and understand more clearly where we think we’re headed with the bridge clearance. That will lay the foundation to formally submit for a bridge permit.”

“We’re going to be working closely with the Coast Guard,” said Greg Johnson, program administrator. “We’re awaiting their letter. We’re doing some preemptive things to make sure we can answer how we can avoid, minimize or mitigate their concerns as we move forward.”