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News / Clark County News

I-5 Bridge replacement officials learn from past, hope policy changes smooth path to new span

River navigation gets higher priority after Columbia River Crossing missteps

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: November 2, 2022, 6:05am
2 Photos
Arguably the biggest change from the days of the Columbia River Crossing project a decade ago, the Coast Guard now requires a preliminary navigation determination to be created much earlier in the review process.
Arguably the biggest change from the days of the Columbia River Crossing project a decade ago, the Coast Guard now requires a preliminary navigation determination to be created much earlier in the review process. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

One of the biggest hurdles the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program faces has moved much closer to the starting line, thanks to policy changes made following the failed Columbia River Crossing megaproject.

The U.S. Coast Guard has authority over the Columbia River and other navigable waterways, with free-flowing river traffic given top priority, and a late-developing conflict over bridge heights was one of the final complications that helped scuttle the project nearly a decade ago.

Officials have learned from the experience.

“The (old) process asked critical navigation questions too late in the process,” said Steven Fischer, Coast Guard District 13 bridge administrator. “The new process gets all those navigation questions answered up front before they even submit an application.”

That new process was implemented in 2014, the year after the Columbia River Crossing fell apart. It came in the form of a memorandum of agreement between the Coast Guard and the Federal Highway Administration to coordinate and improve bridge planning and permitting.

Key to that process was a set of guidelines that require project managers to receive a “preliminary navigation determination” from the Coast Guard before they can begin formally producing what is likely to be a massive environmental impact report on the project.

During or immediately after the process of creating the report, the Coast Guard District Bridge Office will issue a public notice in which public comments will be fielded and answered. Once the Coast Guard receives all required documents and certifications, it can then make a final permit decision.

What that permit will require is already a subject of heated speculation.

Clearance conflicts

The Interstate Bridge Replacement program proposed a replacement bridge with 116 feet of vertical clearance — the same amount the Coast Guard ultimately permitted to the Columbia River Crossing in 2013. But in a preliminary determination in June, the Coast Guard said a replacement bridge should have at least 178 feet of vertical clearance, the same as the current bridge.

This poses a number of problems for the program. A fixed-span bridge with 178 feet of clearance would have a steep roadway grade, be forced to pass over Hayden Island and reach into restricted airspace of nearby airports. Other alternatives, such as a movable-span bridge or a tunnel, don’t meet the program’s purpose and need.

Greg Johnson, the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program’s administrator, said in a bistate legislative committee meeting in July that nothing has changed from a river navigation perspective since the Coast Guard permitted the Columbia River Crossing. The program is working with the Coast Guard and the river users affected by a lower clearance to reach an agreement so a fixed-span bridge can be built at a lower level.

CRC process ‘flawed’

Fischer, the Coast Guard District 13 bridge administrator, said the bridge permitting process used for the earlier project was flawed.

After years of planning to build a replacement bridge assuming only 95 feet of clearance, the Columbia River Crossing only sought approval from the Coast Guard in 2013, after the project had effectively died due to a lack of funding from the Legislature.

Only after reaching agreements to pay companies affected by the lower clearance a combined $86.4 million to mitigate the loss of business and help finance potential relocation, did the Coast Guard permit a bridge with 116 feet of clearance.

Reaching that agreement with the upstream companies affected by the lower clearance bridge allowed the project to show that there was no current need for navigation above 116 feet.

The permit for the controversial but doomed project ultimately was signed by Vice Admiral John Currier, the second-ranking person in the Coast Guard.

“It was unprecedented that it got signed by him,” Fischer said. Bridge permits are normally signed at the Coast Guard headquarters bridge program level, multiple levels below Currier.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

Columbian staff writer