When the U.S. Coast Guard questioned a request for a Section 9 bridge permit for the $3.5-billion Columbia River Crossing project—a proposed 10-lane Interstate 5 bridge connecting Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, Wash.—CRC officials were surprised that years of planning needed to be revisited.

For a project already plagued by multiple design-review delays, the CRC obtained on Dec. 7, 2011, a federal record of decision, an OK to start the permitting process. In March, the Coast Guard told CRC officials that 95 ft of vertical clearance was inadequate between the river and the bridge. CRC officials had used that figure since 2005, knowing then that 80 ft serves most users, though at least seven users require 125 ft. The current bridge's lift span offers 179 ft of clearance; the upstream I-205 bridge provides 144 ft.

In a letter to state officials, CRC Director Nancy Boyd said she is "extremely concerned … since the project has acted on the 95-ft bridge clearance criteria in good faith since 2005." CRC officials tried to obtain written concurrence for the 95-ft height, but the Coast Guard wouldn't act without a bridge application. The Coast Guard had a dozen opportunities to provide feedback since 2005, noted Boyd, but she admits "serious concerns were raised" in spring 2011 with a change in personnel.

A Dec. 7, 2011, Coast Guard letter to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation shows unresolved concerns, which meant the Coast Guard wouldn't accept the application.

The bridge faces height restrictions based on its proximity to two airports.

CRC officials will conduct new river usage reviews. A new draft permit likely will involve "clearance revision of several feet" and mitigation for over-height vessels. CRC says the one-year process factors into the permitting timeline, and any possible changes to design won't be known until later. Work is scheduled to start in late 2013.