The Columbia River Crossing (CRC) sure didn’t see this one coming: The design of a bridge spanning the Columbia River and connecting Portland, Ore., to Vancouver, Wash., part of a $3.5 billion project on Interstate 5, doesn’t leave enough clearance for ships, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The current design calls for 95 feet of clearance, a height that had local businesses telling CRC officials the design wouldn’t work as far back as 2006. CRC director Nancy Boyd said the announcement that the CRC wouldn’t qualify for a needed Coast Guard bridge permit because of the height issue still took them by surprise though, saying that CRC officials had been working with a previous Coast Guard official who said the 95 foot mark was just fine, even though nothing was ever placed in writing.

As reported by The Columbian (in Vancouver), the U.S. Coast Guard let CRC project officials know that the bridge design doesn’t meet “reasonable needs” for ships using the waterway. The Coast Guard added that the fact designers and officials knew this was a possible issue for years and didn’t plan for more clearance is “very unusual.”

What certainly isn’t unusual for this project is that the CRC now faces up to an additional $150 million cost to change the bridge design. In addition, a change in the verticality of the bridge puts the squeeze on height restrictions placed on the bridge by the neighboring Portland International Airport and creates the need for more land space for on-ramps and off-ramps that will inevitably need to grow. Oh, and don’t forget that this could all delay the project even further, likely well into 2014 (you didn’t actually think construction on the bridge would begin in 2013, did you?).

Now Boyd says that the CRC can get out from under this problem (or is that, get over the top of this hurdle?) simply by raising the height of the bridge a few feet and then offering mitigation to companies that require the much higher standard of 125 feet.

The 95-foot height was originally determined after the CRC commissioned a transportation study that concluded there were no significant drawbacks to limiting the occasional clearance needs of ships requiring 100 to 110 feet of space. Obviously, the businesses affected by this don’t agree. And the Coast Guard doesn’t either.

Involved in the height discussion is also the desire to keep the bridge’s profile as low as possible to diminish the footprints needed for ramps, keep the height of the bridge below from the limits imposed by the Federal Aviation Administration and reduce the potential of the new bridge overshadowing downtown Vancouver.

Just like other portions of this project, there’s still work to be done to figure out what the end result of a new height will look like. Don’t hold your breath on any of this.

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