Coast Guard approves lower Columbia River bridge

SALEM, Ore. — The U.S. Coast Guard on Friday approved a new bridge carrying I-5 over the Columbia River and extending Portland’s light-rail system into Vancouver, Wash.

The decision removes a big barrier for the project and gives a boost to Oregon interests who want to build it without funding from Washington state. Still, its future remains in doubt as Oregon lawmakers debate the wisdom of going it alone after the Washington Legislature refused to put up any money.

At 116 feet, the proposed replacement bridge would be lower than the existing span, which lifts to accommodate taller river traffic. Oregon has agreed to pay nearly $90 million to three upriver businesses that may not be able to get some of their products under the lower span.

“Getting the go-ahead from the Coast Guard meets a key viability requirement and makes the project’s path forward clearer,” Matt Garrett, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, said in a statement.

Staff of the Columbia River Crossing project have scaled back their initial plans, which would have included a new light-rail and freeway bridge and new interchanges on both sides. Now, they’re proposing a $2.8 billion project that would replace the bridge, upgrade Oregon’s interchanges and build the light-rail extension, but drop all I-5 upgrades north of State Route 14 in Vancouver.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, a vocal proponent of the project, says funding could come up in a special session of the Legislature scheduled to begin Monday but would more likely be considered later. He says the state needs to secure an agreement with Washington allowing Oregon to pay for upgrades north of the state line.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee supports the project, but it has run into stiff opposition from light-rail critics in the Washington Senate.

The Coast Guard bridge permit will expire if construction doesn’t begin within three years and conclude within five.

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