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Railway an issue for I-5 span fix

Adding supplemental bridge may create problems for boats
by: L.E BASKOW, An effort to build a supplemental bridge over the Columbia River is complicated by the Vancouver Rail Bridge, which makes travel under the spans difficult for boats.

Any effort to build a supplemental bridge between Portland and Vancouver, Wash., must overcome a major complication - the Vancouver Rail Bridge that crosses the Columbia River approximately one mile west of the existing Interstate 5 bridge.

The 39-member Columbia River Crossing Task Force has been studying how to reduce congestion and improve safety on and around the I-5 bridge for more than two years.

It is on the verge of approving a Draft Environmental Impact Study of replacing the bridge with a large, new span that could carry cars, trucks, transit, pedestrians and bicyclists.

But in large part because such a project could cost $6 billion or more, including inflation, the task force recently created a subcommittee to develop a lower-cost alternative focused on keeping the existing I-5 bridge and building a second bridge that would carry local traffic and a new transit line between the two cities.

The subcommittee held an organization meeting Monday. At that time, it directed the task force staff to prepare information on how a supplemental bridge could be constructed and what kind of traffic it could carry.

The subcommittee could finalize its option as early as Monday, in its next meeting.

But unless the option also calls for renovating the rail bridge, it would adversely affect the navigation of the ships, boats and barges that travel that stretch of the river.

The rail bridge has a swing span at the north end to allow large vessels to pass through it. It is on the same channel - called the primary channel - that runs under the lift span on the north end of the I-5 bridge.

Because I-5 bridge lifts are prohibited during morning and evening rush hours, vessels traveling the river at those times must perform a tricky S-turn between the swing span and the center of the I-5 bridge, where the two highest spans - known as the wide span and the high span - are located.

'The turn is especially dangerous when the water is high and the river is running fast,' said Jerry Grossnickle, chief financial officer of Bernert Barge Lines Inc., one of several towboat and barge companies that work the river.

Any supplemental bridge would make the turn even trickier by increasing the number of piers in the Columbia River that must be maneuvered around. But moving the swing span to line up with the center of both the existing and potential supplemental bridges would add at least $42 million to the project.

'You can't add another bridge to the river without fixing the rail bridge,' Grossnickle said.

Metro Councilor Robert Liberty believes remodeling the rail bridge could be part of a package of smaller projects that could reduce congestion without requiring the replacement of the existing I-5 bridge. According to Liberty, the package could include a supplemental bridge and improving the freeway interchanges on both ends of the existing bridge.

'Moving the swing span on the rail bridge would only cost a small fraction of the cost of a new bridge,' said Liberty, who is perhaps the most outspoken critic of building a new bridge in the region.

The rail bridge is owned by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, one of the largest rail companies in the nation. Also known as BNSF Bridge 9.6, it links the ports of Portland and Vancouver and also is used by the Union Pacific Railroad and Amtrak.

Gus Melonas, a BNSF spokesman, declined to discuss the company's future plans for the bridge with the Portland Tribune.

'We will discuss with appropriate parties as necessary however we will not speculate further at this time,' Melonas wrote in an e-mail reply.

The U.S. Coast Guard must approve the siting of any new bridge in the river. Austin Pratt, the guard's bridge administrator in Seattle, said he would be reluctant to recommend the construction of any supplemental bridge unless the lift span on the rail bridge also was moved to eliminate the S-turn.

Boats now have to begin turning as they pass under the I-5 bridge - fishtailing, really - to make the turn. If there were more piers in the river, 'that might not be possible,' Pratt said.

The Coast Guard studied the idea of moving the swing span on the rail bridge in response to requests from towboat operators in 2003. The cost of building a new lift span closer to the center of the river was estimated at $42 million at that time.

According to Pratt, the guard rejected the proposal because it did not meet the federal government's strict cost-benefit analysis.

Even with the prohibition on rush-hour lifts on the I-5 bridge, lifts still occur on an almost daily basis, causing long traffic delays in both directions. The resulting cost in lost productivity and delivery delays was not included in the cost-benefit analysis, however.

'The study did not take delays on Interstate 5 caused by bridge lifts into account. Federal law limited the study to navigation on the river,' Pratt said.

Using the rail bridge to help ease regional traffic congestion has been discussed in the past. The Southwest Regional Transportation Council studied using it for a commuter rail connection between Vancouver and Portland in 1999.

A report issued by the transportation council concluded the idea was not feasible for several reasons, including existing freight traffic on the rail line during morning and afternoon rush hours.

The Columbia River Crossing task force voted Feb. 27 to begin a Draft Environmental Impact Study of replacing the bridge with a large span that also carries mass transit, bicycles and pedestrians. At that time, it also created the subcommittee to draft a smaller study option to be considered at its next meeting on March 27.

The subcommittee was created at the request of Metro, the elected regional government charged with managing growth in most of the Portland area.

The Metro Council voted to request the smaller option after learning that a replacement bridge and related freeway interchange improvements could cost up to $6 billion - or even more, when inflation costs are considered.

The resolution calls for the development of an option that retains the existing bridge - which actually is two side-by-side bridges, one in each direction - and adds a supplemental bridge that carries cars, trucks, high-capacity transit, bicycles and pedestrians.

The subcommittee charged with developing that option is co-chaired by Metro Councilor Rex Burkholder and Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart.

Members include: Jeff Hamm, C-TRAN executive director and chief executive officer; Fred Hansen, TriMet general manager; Dean Lookingbill, transportation director of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council; Tom Zelenka, environmental and public relations manager for the Schnitzer Group; Scott Walstra, Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce public affairs committee chairman; and Walter Valenta, the Bridgeton Neighborhood Association land use planning committee chairman.

The co-chairs of the CRC Task Force - Washington State University Vancouver chancellor Hal Dengerink and Portland attorney Henry Hewitt - are ex-officio members of the subcommittee.

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Decision on the way

The subcommittee held a brief organization meeting Monday. It is scheduled to meet again to develop its option on March 19 and March 26. Both meetings will be held from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the former Hayden Island Yacht Club, 12050 N. Jantzen Drive.