A controversial road to CRC, but is bridge height a roadblock?

A controversial road to CRC, but is bridge height a roadblock?

SALEM, Ore. – During a marathon public hearing Monday, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber gave a "green light" to the proposed Interstate 5 Bridge replacement project. But some offered a cautionary "yellow light" while others wanted to put the brakes on the project altogether.

"Today you have before you a project that has been analyzed, criticized, downsized and looked at from every angle," Kitzhaber told lawmakers. "We have a construction-ready project that will increase mobility, reduce congestion and improve the transportation of goods throughout the state of Oregon and throughout the world."

But while the $3.5 billion project got a high-power pitch from the governor, many lined up after him to voice their concerns about it, including its proposed height.

Not once during the nearly five-hour hearing did lawmakers on the Joint Committee on the Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement Project halt the hearing for a break; instead, they waded into public testimony that was at times heated.

House Bill 2800 would officially make the state a supporter of replacing the current Interstate 5 Bridge spanning the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver with a new one. The bill would also authorize the state’s $450 million share for the project, which Kitzhaber included in his budget.

But the success of the bill depends on a number of factors, including whether the U.S Coast Guard approves a permit for the bridge's height.

A past proposal required the bridge to be 95 feet high. But under that height, about 50 or 55 companies that moved cargo under the bridge would no longer be able to do so, said Kris Strickler, with the Oregon Department of Transportation, during invited testimony that preceded public comment. Now, with a proposed 116-foot high bridge, he said only four companies would be impacted.

He could not discuss the specific impacts to those companies or possible solutions because the state is currently in mitigation with them.

"We have started conversations with those (four users) – we have been for some time around mitigation options and operational options to allow us to continue moving forward with the permit application," he said.

Strickler said the permit application to the Coast Guard was submitted last month and the agency will take the next several months to evaluate it. He said his agency will continue to work with the Coast Guard and the companies impacted by the new bridge.

If those four companies lose their ability to pass their products beneath the bridge, jobs in Oregon and Washington could be negatively affected.

Greenberry Industrial is one of those companies that use the Columbia River to ship its products. Some of the things it makes are wave energy and oil-rigging structures that would be too tall to ship beneath the new bridge, according to CEO Jason Pond.

He told lawmakers that while he supports the bill, he said the bridge's proposed height would negatively affect his business that has over 500 employees. He said 300 jobs could be lost.

"(The 116-foot proposal) is a huge impediment for us," he said because the facility his company ships from is upriver from the bridge.

He said his company bids against companies in Texas and Louisiana, and "if the bridge gets built at its proposed height, we're out of the bidding business."

He urged lawmakers to consider a third-party study that would possibly include a lift bridge.

The bill also allows the state to partner with the state of Washington to implement tolls to raise money to help pay for the bridge.

Pat Egan, chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission, said during his invited testimony, the state has reached an agreement with Washington for tolling in the future.

The state expects revenue from tolling to be between $900 million to $1.3 billion.

According to the state, the bulk of the cost for the project will be $1.2 billion for the bridge, $850 million for light rail and over $1 billion for interchanges in both states. 

The bill caps the amount of the project to just under $3.5 billion.

But several of those who testified argued cost overruns would be likely, and state Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, who sits on the joint committee, was especially concerned and questioned Egan and Strickler during their joint testimony about what would happen if there were overruns.

There was a noticeable pause between Egan and Strickler before Egan said: "Part of the rationale for putting that number into the legislation is we believe it is the upper end of what the overall project would be."

Gerald Fox, who said he was a retired transportation engineer, said during public testimony that lobbyists had overwhelmed "decision-makers with a blizzard of hype and misinformation" about the project.

"The financing plan is a looming disaster," he said. "It flies in the face of efforts to combat climate change, and it is certain to incur devastating cost overruns that are destined to become its legacy and burden Oregon taxpayers for decades to come."

But bridge proponents insisted legislators will be able to provide the necessary oversight to keep cost overruns from happening.

Former state lawmaker and current representative of the Construction Alliance, Rick Metzger, said the questions about accountability assume there won't be any oversight of the project.

"And that is totally untrue. ... As these questions evolve (regarding) construction ... your job and your responsibility, and I have every confidence that you will, (is) to continue to manage this project in the best interest of the state of Oregon," he said to lawmakers.

He also said the project will create "thousands and thousands" of construction jobs.

Opponents, however, said viable alternatives to the project were never really considered and that the public on many important points was left out of the process. Some also had concerns about the need and cost of light rail on the bridge.

Proponents, however, stressed that time is of the essence and if Oregon and Washington don't act, the states may lose out on crucial federal funding.

"The fact is the fiscal challenges the federal government is facing today, with the fiscal cliff and concern about the national debt, it's very unlikely that these kinds of resources are going to survive at this level into the future," Kitzhaber said. "And if we fail to act in 2013, it's very likely that other national projects will move up the queue and come up ahead of us." 

Another public hearing is expected to take place next week.