11141160-large.jpg ¬View full sizeCOURTESY OF GREENBERRY INC. A barge carrying an enormous oil drilling rig bound for the North Slope of Alaska inches under the I-5 bridge, which had to be raised to its maximum height -- 178 feet -- in order for the cargo to clear. Thompson Metal Fab and Greenberry, companies that jointly built the oil rig, claim the Columbia River Crossing's planned replacement I-5 bridge -- 95-feet with no lift span -- will devastate their businesses. The U.S. Coast Guard has said it will reject the CRC's 95-foot bridge as an unacceptable hazard to navigation. http://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2012/06/planners_ignored_river_users_w.html
by Jeff Manning
June 07, 2012
Sailboat-makers, steel fabricators and marine construction companies were unanimous. In a 2004 survey of Columbia River users and again in a 2006 Coast Guard public hearing, the river users said a new I-5 span needed to be 100 to125 feet tall for them to sail underneath. The Columbia River Crossing planners ignored the input and opted instead for 95 feet. The fateful blunder has put the project at odds with a handful of marine shippers, the U.S. Coast Guard and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, both of which need to sign off on the project. The impasse may force the CRC to jettison the $3.1 billion current plan -- seven years in the making -- and design a higher bridge at a cost of $100 million-plus. How did the CRC get to this place? How did an organization with tens of millions of dollars to spend and years of time, whose mission in part is to facilitate marine cargo flows, mess up something so basic as an acceptable bridge height? The project's technical complexities and the conflicting demands of the many stakeholders both played a role. The higher bridge creates safety issues and potential problems for other interested parties. But much of the blame must be laid at the feet of the CRC. The project, which has spent $140 million to date, much of it on public outreach, didn't know until February that the Army Corps of Engineers' dredge is 116 feet high, too tall to clear the CRC's bridge. The CRC also failed to notice the growth on the Columbia's north shore of a bustling group of steel fabricators, who say the 600 jobs they collectively offer hinge on a higher bridge. "We were all going down the path of making a reasonable decision," said Kris Strickler, CRC deputy director. "But the world changed." News of the Coast Guard's opposition to CRC's plans first hit in March. The Oregonian has subsequently gone through hundreds of pages of CRC documents and correspondence to determine how the project settled on the controversial 95-foot height. The CRC rolled the dice that a bridge adequate for 97 percent of river users would be acceptable to the Coast Guard. It didn't turn out that way.
The Oregonian’s continuing coverage of the Columbia River Crossing and the money behind it "Some of these waterway users are major businesses that provide a lot of jobs," said Capt. Mark McCadden, chief of external affairs for the Coast Guard's District 13 in Seattle. "The corps has a dredge that won't clear 95 feet. Think about if we had another Mount St. Helens, with silt dumping into the river, and the dredge couldn't get under that bridge." FUTURE LOOKING UP Three thousand miles away, the bustling Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is planning its own big bridge project. It intends to raise the roadway of the Bayonne Bridge from the current 151 feet to 215 feet. Port officials fear that without the $1 billion upgrade, shippers will avoid the port because new supersized cargo carriers won't be able to get under the bridge. No one will ever confuse the lower Columbia with the Port of New York and New Jersey. But here too, cargo loads are increasing in size and shippers are clamoring for more space. Thompson Metal Fab operates in the former Kaiser shipyard on the north bank of the Columbia in Vancouver. It assembles huge oil drilling rigs and parts for paper plants and hydroelectric dams. The structures are much too large to ship by truck or rail. Instead, they are floated downriver by barge. Thompson's volume of enormous projects has quadrupled in recent years, said company president John Rudi. Two other companies have moved next door, each doing similar large-scale fabrications. Greenberry Inc. of Corvallis leased space in 2010. Oregon Iron Works bought 7.5 acres three years ago. The fabricators ship on the river only a handful of times a year. But their cargoes are generally too large to clear a 95-foot span. The current I-5 bridge offers just 40 feet of clearance at normal water levels. But raising the drawbridge increases the vertical clearance to 178 feet. View full size
That puts the existing bridge in the same league with the Astoria-Megler Bridge (193 feet) the Longview, Wash. span (187 feet) and Interstate 205 bridge (144 feet). A bridges' vertical clearance varies, of course, with the ebb and flow of water levels. The proposed 95-foot height of the new I-5 bridge would offer clearance of between 78 and 95 feet, according to the CRC. "The concept of taking a bridge and making it lower is so contrary to common sense," said Tom Hickman, vice president of sales and marketing for Oregon Iron Works. "We're kind of baffled how they got this far down the road without listening to the concerns. They seem to have just ignored us." HEIGHT CHALLENGES CRC officials admit that the growth of the fabrication business caught them by surprise. Greenberry and Oregon Iron Works weren't in Vancouver when the CRC conducted its initial outreach to river users and CRC officials were unaware of their presence. That 2004 survey by Parsons Brinkerhoff also missed a few important details. It overlooked entirely the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dredge, a mistake later repeated by the CRC. It does mention Thompson and its bottom line is unequivocal. The data "indicates that a future bridge with vertical clearance of 125 feet ... could effectively accommodate all existing vessels." An 80-foot-tall bridge, the report added, "could accommodate all river traffic with the exception of four construction related barges and two recreational sailboats." Nearly two years later, the Coast Guard hosted a public hearing on the same topic. Again, representatives from Thompson, and three other companies stated their need for 100 feet or more of clearance. But other forces were pushing for a lower bridge: most notably geometry. A higher bridge would require a steeper grade up and over the river, which CRC engineers felt was unacceptable for safety reasons. Designers could eliminate an unacceptable hump in the span by moving out the bridge's points of landfall farther south on Hayden Island and farther north in Vancouver. That would have significant impact, aesthetically and otherwise. A higher bridge also poses difficult technical challenges, particularly connecting it to the State Route 14 interchange just north of the river. And there is still another issue: Pearson Field, the municipal airport east of downtown Vancouver. CRC engineers feared that a higher bridge could pose an unacceptable intrusion into the airport's airspace. Some advocates of a higher bridge are pained that a tiny airport catering primarily to single-engine craft would constrain one of the region's most important public works projects. They point out that Pearson has been coexisting just fine with the current I-5 bridge, whose lift towers are 250 feet high. Willy Williamson, Pearson manager, has watched the unfolding controversy. A higher span is not a problem, as far as he's concerned, though ultimately the Federal Aviation Administration 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." COAST GUARD COMPLAINS By last fall, the CRC knew it had a big problem. After mulling various options for years, the CRC finally tipped its hand in its final environmental impact statement. The bridge height: 95 feet. In response, Thompson officials went to the Coast Guard and found a sympathetic ear. "I find that the vertical clearance for the proposed I-5 bridge does not fully address the reasonable needs of navigation for vessels which ply this stretch of the Columbia," said Randall Overton, Coast Guard bridge administrator, in an October 2011 letter. Overton slapped the CRC for not including mention of the fabricators' needs for a higher bridge in its environmental impact statement when it knew of the conflict. The Coast Guard is not just another federal bureaucracy. In keeping with its charge to protect navigable waters, it essentially has veto power over the bridge. In answer, the CRC essentially said that it knew best. "We have confidence that the technical work that has been in process for the past several years is a sound body of work," said Paula Hammond and Matt Garrett, the heads of the Washington and Oregon departments of transportation in a November 2011 letter to the Coast Guard. "A project of this magnitude must address the total array of users in the decision making process and the 95-foot clearance meets those needs." The issue became more complicated when the aRMY Corps of Engineers joined the dissenters. Now it wasn't just a handful of private companies squawking, it was the federal agency that maintains the Columbia channel. "Mitigation" has since become the CRC's watchword. CRC emissaries are reaching out to the steel fabricators, the Coast Guard and the corps in hopes of a compromise to salvage the current design. One possible solution: persuading the fabricators to leave their hulking products partially unassembled for passage under the new bridge, then complete assembly at some downriver location. It's a nonstarter as far as the fabricators are concerned. "You might as well bankrupt us," said Jason Pond, CEO of Greenberry. "I just don't get it. This is a project that's all about jobs. I just assumed that they wouldn't kneecap these companies that are offering great jobs." The corps is looking at whether altering its Yaquina dredge would be feasible. The Yaquina is the dredge that normally plies the water upstream from the I-5 span. Modifying the vessel to lower its mast, lights and other structural elements could cost more than $500,000, said corps spokeswoman Amy Echols. The bridge flap is not the first questionable decision at the CRC. Gov. John Kitzhaber and his Washington counterpart, Chris Gregoire, had to step in last spring and impose a bridge design after a review panel deemed the CRC's choice to be unproven and high-risk. Last summer, another review instigated by Kitzhaber and Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler deemed the CRC's toll revenue projections to be inflated by nearly half a billion dollars. The CRC was relying on outdated and inaccurate traffic numbers, the review found. Not surprisingly, the CRC is fielding some pointed criticism from area politicians, not a good thing for an organization reliant on the good will of Washington, D.C., Salem and Olympia for financing. "We are at a loss as to how such an oversight in this design could have occurred," stated U.S. Rep. Jamie Herrera Beutler and three other Washington Congress members in an April 30 letter to the CRC. "Given the importance of navigation to our region, we believe it is imperative that a new bridge not limit future river commerce." -- Jeff Manning