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Coast Guard Nixes a Bridge Too Low

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

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Longstanding plans for a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River are suddenly on hold, as the Coast Guard has ruled that the structure planned is too low—a design issue that could add $150 million to the $3.5 billion project.

The plans, in the works for eight years, have called for a new Columbia River Crossing with a 95-foot clearance over the river to replace the aging lift bridge that currently opens about once a day. But the Coast Guard, backed by a local fabricator/painting contractor, now says it wants a clearance of 125 feet.



The current Interstate Bridge consists of two parallel structures spanning the Columbia River on I-5 between Oregon and Washington. The northbound bridge was built in 1917, with a nearly identical structure added in 1958. The bridge, featuring one of the last remaining lift spans in the U.S. interstate system, is raised about once a day for marine traffic.

Raising the bridge’s height would not only require new plans, longer approaches and other modifications that would add enormous cost, complexity and delays.

It could also have implications for the region’s aviation. A significantly higher bridge could interfere with flight paths at both Portland International Airport and historic Pearson Field in Vancouver, officials say.

The conflict, brought to a head by the Coast Guard’s recent Record of Decision on the project, is yet another setback for the crossing, which still has not secured funding and has already been through several design changes, reports said.


A 2008 study by bridge planners concluded that a 95-foot height would accommodate most river traffic.

The few exceptions include vessels operated by Thompson Metal Fab of Vancouver, a metal fabricator and abrasive blasting and industrial painting contractor operation that ships oil drilling rigs to Alaska and Asia by barge.

Those vessels need 125 feet of clearance and, unlike big trucks on highways, can’t simply find other routes, says Thompson, which has between 250 and 300 employees.

Company president John Rudi told The Seattle Post-Intelligencer that he had been asking since 2006 for a 125-foot bridge to replace the current structure.

“It was short-sighted of whoever said we’re going to make it 95 feet because we’re going to save some money,” Rudi told the newspaper. “This is the only major navigable river in the Western United States. What you’re doing is choking commerce that you may not even know is around.”

Interstate 5 largely parallels the Pacific Ocean coastline from Canada to Mexico.

‘A Bit Dismayed’

The Coast Guard’s Record of Decision, however, says that a high-level bridge would “substantially increase encroachment” into protected airspace and pose other hazards.

“A higher bridge would include additional hazards to aviation; operational and safety impacts to highway; operational, safety and maintenance impacts to transit; and increased environmental impacts,” the document says.

 Vancouver’s Thompson Metal Fab
Vancouver’s Thompson Metal Fab, a fabricator, blasting and painting operation, says the rigs it supplies demand higher bridge clearance on the river.

A mid-level (95-foot clearance) span, on the other hand, “balances the various needs, allowing the main river crossing structure to make much easier connections to interchanges, surface streets and transit stations in a safe manner, consistent with design standards, and with lower environmental impacts.”

Bridge planners were caught off guard by the decision, saying they thought they had approval for the lower height from the Coast Guard’s previous district bridge administrator.

“We’re a bit dismayed to get this comment from the new bridge administrator, ...” project director Nancy Boyd told The Columbian newspaper. “It did take us by surprise. We’ve been working with the previous administrator all along.”

Project Advisory

But Commander Randall Overton, who became bridge administrator for the Coast Guard’s 13th District in Seattle since July, expressed disapproval of the lower height in a letter Oct. 24 to the project’s Columbia River Crossing, which is led by officials of the Washington and Oregon departments of transportation.

“A bridge with a vertical clearance of 95 feet would impede both current and prospective navigation,” the letter said. “Until these issues are adequately addressed or mitigating strategies implemented, the bridge will not receive a favorable endorsement for Coast Guard bridge permit issuance.”

Overton told The Columbian that if a company like Thompson “had a project they want to bid on, and it’s too big to fit under a bridge, they couldn’t get the project.”

The CRC says it has spent seven years and $140 million planning the crossing. Moreover, it says, the only existing survey of the river’s traffic dates to 2004 and will have to be updated.

The Public Good

Boyd told The Columbian that the conflict could be resolved by adding three to five feet to the design and offering “mitigation” to affected users. She declined to explain the nature of the mitigation.

“We are just trying to optimize impacts to aviation versus impacts to river navigation,” said Boyd. “There’s a small bubble of where you can put something.”

The question remains, however, whether extensive public resources should be expended on a design that would be needed by only a few private vessels each year.

Utah transportation consultant Tom Warne, who led an independent review that resulted in a new bridge design, says no.

“Almost everything [being shipped on a barge] can be dismantled” to clear a lower bridge, Warne told The Columbian in an interview.  “It’s just a matter of wanting to and cost.”

He added: “Should we spend $150 million so this drill rig can go underneath the bridge unimpeded? Where’s the public good in that?”


Tagged categories: Abrasive blasting; Bridges; Construction; Industrial Contractors; Oil and Gas; Painters

Comment from Timothy Werbstein, (3/7/2012, 8:59 AM)

In everything I've read on this bridge, the only "alternatives" discussed are about what will travel over the bridge. Did planners ever evaluate using a bascule bridge (two-leaf draw bridge) or a pivoting bridge? Both of these alternatives allow infinite headroom for the passage of ships and need to be no higher above waterline than a lift bridge.

Comment from Debbie Peterson, (3/10/2012, 2:02 AM)

This is just the latest in a string of incompetent decisions made by the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) directors. in 2010, Tom Warne chaired a WA/OR Governor appointed Independent Review Panel. That panel deemed the then CRC Locally Preferred Alternative Box-Web design as unsafe, and recommended three other bridge designs. Most Clark County residents do not want this bridge project to continue, because of the light rail component that is attached to it. Most of us also do not want it because the I-5 Bridge has another 50 years of life left in it, according to the Corps of Engineers, and also, the impact to our community will be devastating. We do want a new bridge or even two - either to the east or west of the current I-5 Bridge. And, Tim Werbstein is correct, other alternatives were not thoroughly studied. This is our government at work: 7 years and $150M later - this incompetent group is still studying the project, and still coming up with faulty designs.

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