Updated: CRC and River Navigation

Update: 10/05/06

The Metro Council received a briefing on the CRC at their work session on Tuesday and commented on the potential of realigning the barge channel through the rail bridge as a way to simplify the overall problem, and the difficulty with doing so because of the private ownership of the rail bridge.

The Council also remarked on the fact that the narrow tolerance between the upper limit on bridge height imposed by the Pearson Air Park and the lower limit imposed by the Coast Guard would potentially drive costs up and complicate solutions.

Original Post: 9/15/06

One of the trickier aspects of the Columbia River Crossing is the relationship to the railroad bridge downstream.

The swing span on the railroad bridge dictates where river traffic has to line up. This in turn influences the point where river traffic will cross under the freeway bridge.

So, enter the Coast Guard:

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Columbia River Crossing project will host an open house and public hearing Thursday, Sept. 21, 2006, to obtain public input on current proposals for an additional or replacement bridge serving vehicle traffic over the Columbia River for I-5 traffic between Portland and Vancouver. Bridge alignments, pier placement and navigational concerns will be discussed.

The hearing is from 6-9pm on September 21st at the Red Lion on Jantzen Beach. An open house will precede the hearing at 4pm. Under Federal procedure, you have to sign up by September 14 in order to testify at the hearing (imagine if City Council worked that way). More details are available here.

I think this issue actually merits some serious thought. There may be scenarios where we could get more bang for our buck by relocating that railroad swing span. When I was on TPAC, the bar pilots actually came to us with a proposal to do this.

15 responses to “Updated: CRC and River Navigation”

  1. Most of the year most river traffic goes under the “hump” on the I-5 bridges which is mid channel. The RR swing span opens on the north edge of the channel. Hence the barges with tows must make a tricky cross channel move. Only during high water is it necessary to go under the lift span of the I-5 bridge. Maybe its the RR bridge that needs to be rebuilt with a lift span mid-channel.
    I wonder how many bridge lifts are for tugs and other commerce and how many for sail boats and pleasure craft.
    On the busy Main River in Germany, bridges are relatively low; tugs and other commercial river traffic have towers that can be lowered to clear the bridges.
    Maybe it would be less costly to redesign and retrofit tugs than to build a new bridge to accommodate current tug boat design.

  2. I have heard this claim about a “tricky” crossing before. But it has been that way for decades. How many accidents have their actually been? It seems to me the claims about river traffic under the hump are largely theoretical. The real problem is the need for the lift bridge during high water.

  3. Has the Columbia River marine navigation requirements under the Interstate I-5 and BNSF Railroad Bridges been provided by the U.S. Coast Guard?

    The following information is needed before an informed decision on what would be the most cost-effective way to provide increased capacity for freight and people across the river.

    ? Current and projected river traffic requiring the I-5 and BNSF bridges to be opened, differentiated by type, such as: barge traffic, other commercial traffic, sailboats with high masts etc.

    ? How would these bridge opening requirements be changed if the current swing span on the Railroad Bridge were replaced with a longer lift span located further south, as previously recommended for a Truman-Hobbs Project?

    ? If the Railroad Bridge was modified, as above, could the remaining river traffic requiring I-5 openings be accommodated in the early morning hours when I-5 traffic demand is low?

    ? If the answer to the above question is yes except during flood conditions, what is the estimated number of days a year such conditions might occur?

    If the answers to the last two questions indicate that I-5 traffic will not be severely impacted by bridge lifts, the previous decision by the Task Force to eliminate the option of building any new lift span bridge was premature because:

    ? The old swing span on the Railroad Bridge needs to be replaced both for navigational safety and railroad operation, even if the exiting Interstate Bridges are replaced with a new high span highway bridge.

    ? A lower profile multi-modal bridge with a lift span, adjacent and downstream from the existing Interstate bridges, accommodating light rail, local traffic and auxiliary southbound freeway traffic would not require a fly-over of the railroad tracks as is currently proposed.

    ? A low profile multi-modal bridge plus modifying the railroad bridge would probably cost less than a new high span bridge and would not cause all of its negative land use impacts to downtown Vancouver and Hayden Island.

    ? Replacing the railroad swing span would be one of the railroad upgrades needed to increase its capacity in order to accommodate more freight and passenger service, thus reducing traffic on I-5.

    ? The traffic capacity of the existing I-5 bridges would be increased by removing the Hayden Island northbound on-ramp and rerouting the SR 14 and downtown southbound traffic to auxiliary lanes on the new multi-modal bridge as previously recommended.

    ? Merely posting slower speeds on the freeway through the entire bridge influence area could mitigate the sight-line and grade safety issues at the north end of exiting bridges. The slower speeds would not decrease capacity.

  4. Does anyone know why they put the moveable spans so close to the side of the river?

    Whatever the reason, I agree that the railroad bridge needs to be considered for changes, too, and not as a reason for the freeway spans to be in the center or towards the side. It is, after all, part of the Pacific Northwest High Speed Rail Corridor and used enough to make it hard for commuter service to work (though there are also issues south of the bridge).

    Overall, I would prefer that the high/lift parts of the bridges be moved to the center or south side of the river so the bridges can be lower when they reach Vancouver.

  5. Most everyone knows that replacing the RR Bridge is prudent and reasoanble.

    We need more rail capacity and this bridge inhibits our ability to move rail freight and passenger rail at the same time.

    It hurts our ability to be competitive in the world marketplace. It is not just a local problem.

    Replacing this bridge with a multi-modal span would and could change the whole equation and justification for replacing the Interstate Bridges.

    A double deck new replacement RR Bridge with twice the heavy raid capacity and new commuter and passenger rail capability with Light Rail tracks would solve a lot of problems and save a lot of money.

    On the upper deck would be capacity for freight specfic lanes for trucks to where they would not have to be in the I-5 corridor. It should have special HOV lanes to move busses and cars more directly to the city of Portland and from Portland where people do not have to be in the I-5 corridor. It could tie into the Rivergate Bike Trail system and provide a more direct and safer way to bikers to get across the river into Washington. It would provide and excellent way for PED people to get to Hayden Island and Washington.

  6. We need more rail capacity and this bridge inhibits our ability to move rail freight and passenger rail at the same time.

    As I recall, the Regional Rail study concluded the bridge was not the bottleneck and identified a significant number of other improvements that were needed before any consideration of a new river crossing for rail.

  7. Paul says, “Replacing this bridge with a multi-modal span would and could change the whole equation and justification for replacing the Interstate Bridges.” I agree.

    The present I-5 bridges are fixable, even for their seismic deficiencies. And many people recognize the value of the RR corridor as a multi-use route. Unfortunately, the studies seem to miss what the popular appraisal recognizes. Perhaps the studies are not asking the proper questions.

    A WDOT engineer remarked to me that an extra bridge would only reduce current I-5 traffic by 15 per cent. I would question that.By that calculation the traffic congestion would return to present levels with a 15 per cent increase in usage–an event not too far away. A 15% reduction of trucks, for example is vastly different from a 15% reduction in autos. So, one needs to analyze what kind of traffic would be diverted. Connecting the “West Arterial,” as it is called, to both Hwy 30 and to Swan Island could take a lot of traffic off the I-5 and would also provide the local connector–Vancouver to Hayden Island–that some are proposing next to the present bridges.

    This route, examined in its full potential, passes by important hubs of Metro activity: West Vancouver, Columbia Bv., University of Portland, Swan Island, and (eventually) hot neighborhood, North River District.

    Well, the people have a “seat of the pants” hunch about this route. What the studies need to ask is “what possible connections can be made via this route that are currently, or are projected to be, made via I-5.”

  8. Paul,

    Sharon Nassett has been the driving force behind the idea of a multimodal bridge in the BNSF corridor. I met her at an I5 Partnership open house at Clark College about a year ago. I think, beyond what Sharon has been proposing, that this would be a logical route to connect a growin Northweat Portland to a growing Vancouver with some very relevant stops in between. So I suggested a multimodal bridge ‘cross the Willamette as part of that route. Sharon’s group: http://newinterstatebridge.com/ also, logically, calls for a bridge from Western point of Columbia Bv to Hwy 30.

    I know this is starting to sound complicated. Also, the CRC folks don’t think enough traffic would be diverted to make it worth it—and forestall an entirely new CRC replacing the present bridges. But I disagree.

    I have been impressed with how much general sympathy there is for this view, even if the experts don’t think so. Vancouver is already expanding with high density to the west, where the corridor is. I also firmly believe that the West bank of the Willamette will continue to acquire prime residential property status. A another streetcar line from the present Central line, all the way to Van., seems appropriate. Certainly, there are some huge waterfront industries/businesses located there now. But, I’m trying to think twenty or thirty years ahead.

  9. The following was presented as part of AORTA’s testimony to the CRC Task Force 9/26.

    ….The top priority for the Columbia River Crossing should be the replacement of the swing span on the railroad bridge, with a vertical lift span located closer to the center of the river as recommended by the Columbia River Towboat Association six years ago. The shift of the barge channel to align with this new lift span would eliminate the dangerous downstream “S” curve maneuver required by tugboats wishing to avoid bridge lifts. It would also allow more barge tows to avoid these lifts during high water conditions.

    Traffic disruption would be minimal because lifts would only be required for high vessels, which comprise only a small part of total river traffic. (See Vessel Height vs. Annual Frequency table, page 3, U.S. Coast Guard Fact Sheet, 9-21-06)

    If lifts can be kept to a minimum, no changes to the current freeway bridges are necessary. The bridges were recently painted and their lifts refurbished. If their approach ramps are removed (see Jim Howell’s proposal of Sept. 12, 2005), and a 45 MPH speed limit is posted and enforced on the freeway in the bridge influence area to mitigate line of sight issues, the existing bridges will be able to accommodate the freeway’s six lane capacity safely.

    This brings into question the earlier decision of the Task Force to eliminate lifts on any new bridge. You should consider the tradeoff between a low profile supplemental bridge with a lift that would operate only occasionally, and a much more expensive high bridge with approaches flying over the railroad fill in downtown Vancouver….

  10. Correct me, anyone, if I am wrong, but would a modern style multimodal bridge at BNSF corridor present a problem to either river traffic or to air traffic into Pearson AirPark?

    1.The piers could be placed to allow a simple straightforward alignment with the channel(s) used under the I-5 bridge, to reduce the present zigzag course for commercial river traffic. 2.And lift towers would also be unnecessary, so the height could be comparable to the present I-5 bridges. Would that still pose an air navigation hazard? .

    If this BNSF corridor, multi-modal bridge was double decked (I think that is the most common proposal) the lower level could open for unusually tall vessels.

    So I guess the question is: Can a double decked bridge at BNSF be high enough for all river traffic in all conditions, including flooding, yet low enough to not interfere with flights to Pearson? It is somewhat of a greater distance from Pearson than the I-5, but not nearly as far away as the Glenn Jackson.

  11. I don’t think it is likely that the current task force is going to fully develop ideas outside the freeway corridor bridges. The real question is whether its possible to get them to come to a firm conclusion on keeping the current bridges for the forseeable future. If that were settled, you can start to talk about changes to other facilities, like the railroad bridges or a new Columbia Crossing, that will make the current bridges work better. Those may or may not involve WashDOT and ODOT in leadership roles.

  12. I have to tell you that I have been impressed with what Jim Howell has been doing for apparently more then a decade to explain and promote the rail options and opportunities.

    To point out what the BNSF rail corridor is and what it can be made into is in the best interests of everyone. I just think when you overlay what Sharon Nasset has also been doing and saying we get a lot of substance and benefit to a greater base of people, businesses and to the environment.

    No one singularly has all of the answers but what we do know is that the I-5 corridor is broken to a point where the cost in real dollars is so much that any singular futile effort to just replace the Interstate Bridges with a new wide CRC span is like trying to put a Band Aid on a broken back.

  13. Jim’s work on both rail and roadway issues going back to the removal of Harbor Drive and the creation of Waterfront Park is almost always right on the mark.
    The problem with focusing on the RR bridge, is that 1. the analysis of RR operations does not show it to be the problem, rather a variety of smaller pinch points, and 2. the bridge failured to pass federal muster under the Truman/whatever it is Act for federal assistance several years ago.
    Ross is correct, all this becomes mute if the existing bridges are abandoned. If they are retained either as freeway or as arterial with transit, then there is something to talk about.
    I continue to believe the “6-2-2” option makes the most sense…done in sequence. First a new arterial bridge with MAX adjacent to the existing structures and the upgrading of I-5 to freeway standards. Then as the need is demonstrated, a new or improved RR bridge with lanes designed for freight and an added track for passenger rail.
    All paid for with tolls on I-5.

  14. Lenny, you always have some points but placing tolls on both I-5 and I-205 corridors is a killer and is not required if we replace the RR Bridge in a public/private partnership and include Light Rail on this RR span. Also making this RR span double deck and then multi-modal is what brings together the constituency that finances the bridge and eliminates the need for tolls on the Interstates.

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