Columbia River Crossing Task Force I-5 bridge project must span political, logistical divides
Sunday, February 25, 2007
BY DON HAMILTON
Building a new bridge across the Columbia River isn't for the faint of heart.
We're only talking, after all, about one of the busiest intersections in America, a place where airplanes, major highways, trains and one of the continent's longest navigable rivers all come within a few hundred yards of one other.
Build a new bridge? That's easy. Just make sure it's high enough for tugboats, low enough for airplanes and wide enough for plenty of trucks and the next generation of commuters. While you're at it, make it an architectural masterpiece and try to keep the price tag under, say, $6 billion, OK?
OK, maybe it's not so easy.
"This is a project the size of which this region has not seen," said Franklin Green, assistant design engineer on the project. "It's a great opportunity as an engineer to be able to work on it."
In some ways, engineering might be the simplest part of this process. Trickier will be the political calculus needed to balance the desires of the 39 different interests that make up the Columbia River Crossing task force, including private companies, environmental groups, truckers, shippers, commuters and state, regional, county and city governments.
The political pressures are quite public. Everyone has a stake and everyone has an opinion. But everyone also wants to see something done.
"All of us are going to have to give something," said Mayor Royce Pollard, Vancouver's representative on the task force. "It's the economic future of our region. We need something we can lay out on the table for the public."
Engineers are trained to solve technical problems, and the new bridge offers the chance to do exactly that. They face serious challenges over major design features, any one of which could, if not worked out just right, kill the whole deal.
Take, for example, how a new bridge would handle Columbia River shipping.
One of the primary reasons for building a new bridge in the first place is to get rid of the lift span, which delays freeway traffic every time it's raised. It's the easiest for shipping because of its height - 180 feet of vertical clearance when open - and because it lines up with the swing span on the BNSF Railway bridge a mile downstream.
But that lift span on the Washington end of the bridge is only one of three primary shipping channels. Closer to midstream is what's known as the barge channel, with a 531-foot-wide, 60-foot-high span. The next span south is called the high span because of its 70-foot vertical clearance at the top of the bridge hump. Tugs and barges use the barge channel or high span whenever they can, only requesting a bridge lift when necessary.
But it's not an easy process. Ships that bypass the lift-span channel have to move quickly toward the river's north side to align with the railroad bridge. It's a tricky maneuver requiring deft handling, especially when the river runs fast.
Taking out the old bridge would mean removing its nine old piers and replacing them with a larger bridge with five or six. That would make navigation a little safer and provide one high, wide span that would accommodate nearly all shipping without a lift span.
Right now, Green said, upwards of 90 percent of the shipping using the lift span need no more than 75 feet of clearance. Rarely, he said, something comes through that needs 120 feet of clearance or more, usually a piece of scaffolding or a construction tower. But those come through only once every year or two.
As a result, the working scenario for the new bridge calls for a 300-foot-wide underpass for ships with a vertical clearance of 95 feet when the water level is zero. It would be located near the north shore, lining it up with the swing span at the railroad bridge downstream.
"We believe it's going to be a better scenario than we have today," Green said. "Under all circumstances, under all water levels, the barges and tugs would be able to use the same channel and wouldn't have to make that complicated maneuver."
Practical, not pretty
All these practical demands won't leave much room for architectural adornments on the bridge. A plain, mid-level bridge is in the works, something closer in design to the Interstate 205 Bridge than the Golden Gate Bridge. Recently, for example, the task force received a suggestion that the bridge design echo the twin spires of the Oregon Convention Center, an engaging but impractical idea considering the proximity of airplanes using Pearson Field.
If shipping means the bridge can't be too low, then aviation means it can't be too high.
The runway at Pearson Field is only a few hundred feet east of the existing bridge, and the approach takes planes directly over where the bridge meets land on the Washington side. Even now, the 230-foot towers at the I-5 Bridge's north end intrude on the airport's airspace.
Green is aware of no serious encounters between the planes and the towers, but the design of the new bridge can't intrude into the airspace, said Sean Loughran, Pearson Field manager.
It shouldn't, at least not under a possible bridge profile being worked out by the Crossing staff. One alignment shows the bridge roadbed crossing into Washington about 32 to 43 feet above the BNSF tracks. Signs and lighting would extend above that level, but should still provide enough clearance for planes either landing or taking off.
One uncertainty in understanding the aviation issues involves not the vertical clearance but its horizontal alignment. One option, building a new bridge immediately upstream of the existing bridge, brings the new structure a few hundred feet closer to the end of the runway and creates more potential for conflict than a downstream alignment. But Green said both create safe landing and takeoff patterns.
"In spite of the limitations," said Loughran, "there's enough room there in the middle to come up with a project that works."
The Columbia River Crossing task force is about to hold the most important meeting of its two-year bureaucratic life.
The 39-member group Tuesday may narrow the wide range of options for a new way across the Columbia River down to just three. Actually, there would be only two, because the law requires one alternative that suggests doing nothing.
That narrowing will come in a vote to begin work on a draft environmental impact statement for a big new bridge. The Crossing staff is recommending scrapping the old Interstate 5 Bridge and replacing it with a bigger bridge with extra room for traffic - as well as either light rail or bus rapid transit. If the task force takes that step, it will officially dismiss 23 configurations of new and old bridges, including a tunnel, and 14 mass-transit methods, including monorail, maglev rail, ferries, high-speed rail, streetcars and automated people movers, that were all at various times under consideration.
The Crossing staff is recommending the task force include three alternatives for study in the draft EIS. They are:
- No build. This alternative is included in all projects built with federal money as a way to compare action with inaction.
- Replace the old bridge with a new one with bus rapid transit.
- Replace the old bridge with a new one with light rail.
The meeting will be Tuesday at the Oregon Department of Transportation offices in Portland.
But don't expect that staff recommendation to win quiet or quick approval. Rex Burkholder, the Metro Council's representative on the task force, won council approval last week to ask that a third bridge, while keeping the old bridge, be added to the draft EIS study. Burkholder only carries has one of the 39 votes, but Metro's voice carries extra weight because of its long history in transportation planning and because it distributes federal transportation money around the Portland area.
No fewer than seven task force members or their representatives appeared before the Metro Council last week, some in support of the staff recommendation but some opposed. Other suggestions for adding to the draft EIS seem likely to surface during Tuesday's meeting.
Advocates for keeping the old bridge and building a new one upstream or downstream have been particularly vocal, as have supporters of bus rapid transit, who fear that concept is getting short shrift despite its apparent inclusion in the draft EIS.
But the governors of Oregon and Washington empaneled the Crossing project, and its members seemed determined to keep the process moving forward.
After launching the draft EIS, whatever its final incarnation, the bulk of the complicated work will be carried out by the Crossing staff, which at times numbers up to 50, augmented by consultants. When it's done, perhaps 30 percent of the final engineering could be compete, said Franklin Green one of the bridge engineers.
And once the draft EIS is under way, the 39-member task force won't be needed as often. At least not for a while. After Tuesday, the group has only four more meetings scheduled through the rest of 2007, mostly for progress reports. A preliminary schedule calls for reviewing the EIS in the spring of 2008 and reaching a decision on what's called the locally preferred alternative - the final decision, in other words - by June 2008.
The Columbia River Crossing staff is recommending a new Interstate 5 bridge with either light rail or bus rapid transit.
The Metro Council representative will ask to include other options in the draft environmental impact statement.
The 39-member Columbia River Crossing task force meets in Portland on Tuesday night to vote on the draft EIS. Why not just build a third bridge?
That wouldn't solve the problems, the crossing task force decided. A new upriver or downriver bridge wouldn't fix the Interstate 5 Bridge lift span that clogs I-5; wouldn't upgrade the aging, seismically vulnerable bridges; could mean a new highway through Vancouver and Portland neighborhoods; and could make an already complicated river navigation process even more difficult.
Why not keep the old bridges?
Using them not for an freeway but as arterials would create new traffic problems for downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island. Seismic upgrades to the old bridges would be very expensive. The lift span would still disrupt traffic, confounding its use for mass transit. And navigation problems would remain.
What would happen to the old bridges?
No one knows. Most likely, both the northbound span, which opened in 1917, and the southbound span, opened in 1958, would be sold for scrap. But someone could always buy one, like that guy who bought the London Bridge in 1968 and rebuilt it in Arizona.
Why not a tunnel?
A tunnel would have to burrow so deeply under the silt and sand that it would miss Hayden Island, Highway 14 and downtown Vancouver altogether. That means they'd be cut off from I-5 or served only by a complicated and expensive series of underground interchanges.
Will there be bicycle and pedestrian access?
There will be room for bikes and pedestrians, though exactly how hasn't been decided. That will be part of the planning during the draft environmental impact statement process.
What's a draft environmental impact statement?
Federal law requires an environmental impact statement for projects that may have an impact on their surroundings. Projects and likely alternatives undergo a rigorous analysis, which leads to a draft environmental impact statement, a final environmental impact statement and, finally, selection of a "locally preferred alternative." The project then can go to Congress and ask for money.
Why is the task force so big?
Because Interstate 5 affects so many interests. The task force includes transit agencies, ports, trucking companies, tugboat operators, business interests, environmental organizations, a union and no fewer than 12 governments, counting cities, counties and the two states.
What will it cost?
There are no formal estimates yet, but somewhere between $2 billion to $6 billion is possible.
What would a new bridge look like?
Don't expect the Golden Gate Bridge. The design will be tricky because of the needs of shipping and aviation. So something practical if pleasant is more likely than an architectural marvel.
Why such a wide range on the cost estimate?
Mostly because highway interchanges are spendy. Thoroughly smoothing out the Marine Drive interchange in Portland, for example, would be far more expensive than more modest changes to its configuration today. The whole project could involve 50 bridges, counting onramps and offramps. So the final cost depends a lot on things not directly involving the bridge itself.
Who will pay?
Everyone. The process isn't complicated: Get the Oregon and Washington congressional delegations on board, get as much as possible from the feds, and get what's left from some combination of state and local sources.
Will it be easy to get funding?
No. It can't hurt that the Northwest now has more transportation clout in Congress. Washington's Sen. Patty Murray is now chairwoman of the Senate's Appropriations subcommittee on transportation and Oregon's Peter DeFazio is chairman of a House transit and highways subcommittee. But Congress has vowed to budget on a pay-as-you-go basis, and there's not a lot of spare federal money these days.
Will it involve new taxes?
Unsure. No decisions have been made.
Will there be tolls?
Perhaps. There's been a lot of talk about tolls among the Crossing staff. Nothing is certain, but tolling is being considered along with more traditional sources of money. All the Columbia River bridges in this region - the Interstate 205 Bridge is the exception - were paid for with tolls that were eventually removed.
Will there be a vote on the bridge?
Maybe, but nothing's certain. The public rarely gets to vote on highway projects unless new taxes are involved. So it depends on the funding mechanisms. A new tax to pay a local share of the project could mean a vote. In 1995, Clark County voters cast ballots on a sales tax increase that would have paid for light rail. But Portland's light rail lines to the airport and through North Portland were built without a public vote, as is the new Clackamas County line just getting started.
- Don Hamilton
Don Hamilton can be reached at 360-759-8010 and