Ignoring the Coast Guard dooms the I-5 Bridge Project to yet another failure
The Oregon and Washington DOTs have again designed a I-5 bridge that’s too low for navigation
In their rush to recycle the failed plans for the Columbia River Crossing, the two state transportation departments have failed to address Coast Guard navigation concerns
State DOT PR efforts are mis-representing the approval process: The Coast Guard alone, decides on the allowable height for bridges, and only considers the needs of navigation.
Make no mistake, the Coast Guard officially drew a line in the sand–actually, 178 feet in the air above the Columbia River–and has essentially said that the two state DOTs “shall not pass” with a river crossing that doesn’t provide that level of navigation clearance.
What the preliminary determination is intended to do is signal to the DOTs the kind of structure that the Coast Guard will likely approve. But the Oregon and Washington DOTs aren’t taking the hint. Instead, they’re pretending that this “determination” is really meaningless, and that if they just show that the height restriction would be inconvenient or expensive for them to comply with, that they can somehow force the Coast Guard to let them build a bridge with a lower navigation clearance. That’s a clearly wrong reading of the law, and more importantly it means the two State DOTs are embarking on a risky strategy that’s likely to doom the current effort to build a new Columbia River Bridge.
Prolog: The failure of the CRC
As we’ve pointed out, this is deja vu all over again. The Columbia River Crossing project similarly ignored Coast Guard signals that a low bridge would be unacceptable.
More than a decade ago, the Oregon and Washington DOTs advanced a plan for a new fixed-span I-5 bridge with a navigation clearance of 95 feet. The DOTs did their own analysis of shipping needs, and claimed that, in their opinion, 95 feet would meet the reasonable needs of river users. The trouble is, that determination isn’t up to state DOTs: it’s the exclusive legal province of the US Coast Guard, which is charged by Congress with protecting the nation’s navigable waterways. (Despite the moniker “Department of Transportation” state DOTs have essentially no legal or policy responsibility for commercial water traffic.
Early on in the bridge design process–in 2005–the Coast Guard signalled its likely objections to a mere 95-foot river clearance. But state DOT officials blundered ahead, insisting that their own analysis was sufficient to justify the low design. At the time it issued its record of decision in December 2011, the Coast Guard filed a formal objection, noting that the two state DOTs had not provided sufficient information for the Coast Guard to make the determination as to the needed clearance. The Coast Guard wrote:
. . . the Coast Guard’s concerns with the adequacy of the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) have not been resolved . . . As previously stated, the Coast Guard cannot determine if the preferred 95-foot bridge clearance will meet reasonable navigation requirements based on the information provided for review.
In addition, the Coast Guard noted that the FEIS failed to consider the environmental effects of different bridge heights:
The FEIS does not address current and future impacts to navigation/waterway users as a result of proposed decreased vertical clearance, nor does it study alternatives to a vertical clearance other than 95 feet.
As the bridge permitting agency, the Coast Guard determines the reasonable needs of navigation when acting upon a permit application.
Only after completing the FEIS and getting a ROD did the two state transportation departments start applying for the needed Coast Guard bridge permit. In December 2012, the Coast Guard made it clear that the proposed 95-foot clearance would not be sufficient. Ultimately, the Coast Guard insisted on at least a 116-foot river clearance.
Here we go again
Even though they’ve been working on reviving the Columbia River Crossing since 2018, the two state DOTs only submitted a new navigation report to the Coast Guard in November 2021. For more than three years they’ve been operating under the assumption that the Coast Guard will go along with a 116-foot navigation clearance. But in its “Preliminary Navigation Clearance Determination” the Coast Guard has said that won’t be nearly enough.
The Coast Guard is crystal clear about its approval standard:
“Generally the Coast Guard does not approve bridge proposal with vertical navigation clearances below the ‘present governing structure’ when the existing VNC has been and is currently needed unless there is a compelling navigational reason to do so.” (Harris to Goldstein, June 17, 2022, p. 2)
The real takeaway from the Coast Guard letter is that the I-5 bridge needs to provide 178 feet (or more) of vertical navigation clearance.
. . . the Columbia River (specifically the section of the Columbia River immediately east of the existing I-5 twin bridges) has and needs to continue to provide VNC equal or greater than the existing I-5 twin bridges of 178 feet. Our PNCD concluded that the current proposed bridge with 116 feet VNC, as depicted in the NOPN, would create an unreasonable obstruction to navigation for vessels with a VNC greater than 116 feet and in fact would completely obstruct navigation for such vessels for the service life of the bridge which is approximately 100 years or longer. (Emphasis added)
The implication is that if the two DOTs can work out a financial deal with existing river users it can get Coast Guard to approval a lower bridge clearance. But Coast Guard’s past comments and current review indicate that it is not merely looking out for the interests of current river traffic and industry, but is intent on protecting the current navigational channel for future industry and activities.
The reasons for the Coast Guard’s decision are clearly laid out in its June 17, 2022 letter:
- Current users need to move structures and vessels with a clearance of between 130 and 178 feet.
- Vessels and their cargos are growing larger over time. Marine industries need the flexibility to accommodate larger structures in the future.
- There are no alternative routes for waterborne traffic to reach areas East of the I-5 bridges; in contrast their are many alternate routes for terrestrial traffic (cars, trucks and trains).
- Water access to the area East of the I-5 bridges, including PDX airport and the Columbia Business Center marine industrial area in Vancouver may be needed in the event of a natural or national emergency
- Historically, the Columbia Business Center has been a preferred site for shipyard activity (it housed the Kaiser Shipyard in World War II) and may be needed again for this purpose in the future
The Coast Guard’s conclusion makes it clear that it is strongly committed to maintaining the existing river clearance, that it won’t approve a 116 foot bridge, and that the economic effects of this would be unacceptable. It also pointedly directs the two state DOTs to evaluate either a tunnel or a moveable span to meet its 178-foot requirement:
The Columbia River System is an extremely important interdependent-multimodal supporting national and international commerce critical to local, national and global economies. Reducing the capability and capacity of the Columbia River System would severely restrict navigation. IBR’s proposed bridge as depicted in Public Notice 02-22 with its 35% reduction of VNC from 178 feet to 116 feet is contradictory to the U.S. Coast Guard’s mandate from Congress to maintain freedom of navigation on the navigable waters of the U.S. and to prevent impairment to U.S. navigable waterways. As new structures are built, navigation clearances should be improved or at a minimum maintained. Any proposed new bridge should have a VNC of greater than or equal to that of the existing I-5 twin bridges of 178 feet or preferable, unlimited VNC, as well as a HNC as permitted during the final USACE 408 permit. There are alternative options to accomplish this VNC to include a tunnel or a high-level lift bridge or bascule bridge, which would provide an unlimited vertical clearance. A modern similar successful project is the Woodrow Wilson Bridge over the Potomac River in Washington, DC that was completed in 2009. It is a higher-level double bascule lift bridge on an interstate (I-95) with transit. The added height of the new bridge reduced the number of bascule bridge openings for vessel passage by 76%. (Emphasis added)
The DOT Strategy: Maximum Risk
Once again, the state DOTs have delayed as long as possible confronting the issue of the navigation clearance. This time, having learned from its prior experience, the Coast Guard has insisted that the navigation issue be addressed prior to the environmental impact statement.
Still, the DOTs are equivocating, implying that the Coast Guard decision has no weight, and arguing that the legal standard for review involves some kind of balancing of DOT interests in a convenient and cheaper low clearance bridge and implying that the DOTs and not the Coast Guard are the ones who determine the minimum navigation clearance.
The best way to minimize risk is to advance a series of possible alternative solutions through the SEIS process. At a minimum, these should include a lower level bridge with a lift span, and some kind of tunnel. In the event that the Coast Guard sticks to its preliminary determination, which is a strong possibility, if not a very high probability, this will mean that the project will be able to move forward. The DOTs solution, to move forward with only a fixed span, runs the risk that the Coast Guard will hold firm to its announced intention to require a minimum 178 feet of clearance, meaning that two or three years from now the project will be back to square one with no legally buildable, environmentally reviewed project. All of the project sponsor’s supposed concern with being able to compete for funding will be jeopardized by this reckless decision to look only a fixed span.USCG PNCD IBR 17June2022