Planning for low bridge will continue in spite of expected Coast Guard rejection
By John Ley
For Clark County Today
On a day when heavy rains and snowpack melt caused flood warnings and ODOT issued press releases about more Interstate Bridge lifts, the Interstate Bridge Replacement (IBR) team told its Executive Steering Group (ESG) they expect the US Coast Guard (USCG) to reject a request to build a bridge with 116 feet of clearance for marine traffic. The IBR team will submit the current proposal to the government as part of their environmental analysis.
Last year the IBR team notified the community and the Coast Guard they planned to advance a design for a bridge with the 116 feet of clearance for marine traffic. Earlier this spring, Coast Guard officials asked citizens and businesses for input on the proposal.
“We’re going to be working closely with the Coast Guard,” said Greg Johnson, the IBR’s 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.”
Ray Maybe, assistant program administrator, said: “We are working to bring this recommended, modified locally preferred alternative (LPA) into the supplemental environmental impact statement process, where the work to understand the impacts and benefits of the project can be studied and quantified.”
In the previous failed Columbia River Crossing (CRC) effort, the proposal was to build a bridge with 95 feet of clearance. That was rejected. Proponents then asked for approval for 110 feet of clearance, which was also rejected. Following the removal of two Coast Guard commanders with oversight, a third request was approved for a bridge with a height of 116 feet.
The previous process was characterized as a high-stakes limbo dance, which the IBR team appears to be following. “The proposed Columbia River Crossing has turned into a high-stakes limbo dance,” Willamette Week reported: “How low can the bridge go?”
In one case, the CRC staff was hoping two tall-masted ships that routinely sail on the Columbia River would dismantle their masts before going under the too-low bridges.
That “bridge too low” required $86.4 million in “mitigation” to be paid to three up river firms. They included Thompson Metal Fab (TMF). “Our tallest loads have been 165 feet with many over the 125-150 foot range,” John Rudi of TMF said. He also noted that the USCG recommends a clearance buffer of no less than 10 feet.
Two other companies are next to Thompson, each doing similar large-scale fabrications. Greenberry Industrial of Corvallis, leased space in 2010 and Oregon Iron Works owns a 7.5-acre facility. The fabricators ship on the river only a handful of times a year. But their cargoes are often too large to clear the 95-foot span originally proposed over a decade ago. They each required “mitigation” with the 116-foot former CRC proposal.
“We’ve heard repeatedly from you (ESG), the Bi-state legislators, and the governors, that there is no interest in repeating a movable bridge on I-5,” Johnson said. He spoke about a movable bridge adding to congestion (like happens during current bridge lifts). Johnson said his team will deal with height issues by either avoiding, minimizing, or mitigating the problems.
Yet the modified LPA fails to reduce traffic congestion. Earlier reports from the IBR team indicate morning commute times from Salmon Creek to the Fremont Bridge on I-5 will double to one hour by 2045. Furthermore, they expect that half of rush hour vehicles will be stuck in traffic traveling zero to 20 miles per hour.
A bridges’ vertical clearance varies, of course, with the ebb and flow of water levels. The original proposed 95-foot height of the new I-5 bridge would offer clearance of between 78 and 95 feet, according to CRC documents a decade ago. That seven-foot variance in water level would seem to indicate the new proposal could actually offer clearance less than 110 feet during times with high water levels like today.
Some citizens have speculated that the bridge needs to be lower to accommodate light rail. Yet a recent news report indicates Seattle’s Sound Transit is considering either a tunnel or a bridge for its Ballard light rail extension. The bridge option would provide 135 feet of clearance.
IBR Administrator Greg Johnson explains that his team knows leaders in the states don’t want a movable bridge span. They will focus to “avoid, minimize, or mitigate” issues raised by the Coast Guard.
Members of the ESG spoke about the IBR needing to “thread the needle” with the bridge, trying to accommodate both marine traffic and airplanes from Pearson airport and the Portland International Airport.
But people in the community point out that Pearson has been coexisting just fine with the current I-5 Bridge, which has lift towers that are about 230 feet high. The lift span is capable of moving 136 feet vertically, and provides about 178 feet of clearance below when fully raised. The towers are 190 feet tall.
Willy Williamson, Pearson manager during the CRC, watched the unfolding controversy. A higher span is not a problem, as far as he’s concerned, though ultimately the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will consider the CRC’s plan.
“Raising the bridge 30 feet is not going to hurt us,” Williamson said. “Fifty feet may be a different matter. But that’s the FAA’s call.”
The IBR team isn’t expected to apply for the Coast Guard permit for several years, and will continue to work with all parties to attempt to find an acceptable solution.
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