The Port of Hood River is working to get the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge replaced as quickly as possible. At its current pace, a new bridge could be in place by 2025, but the port and representatives from both sides of the river hope to finish it sooner.
The port commission most recently held a work session with local stakeholders to go over the process of submitting a Final Environmental Impact Study (FEIS), which must be completed before the project can move forward.
The June 19 session featured presentations by Project Director Kevin Greenwood, Project Manager Angela Findley of WSP Engineering and Clary’s Consulting President Lowell Clary, who explained the complex process to the session’s attendees.
The port is currently in the process of finishing the FEIS and other National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements.
NEPA provides federal agencies a framework on handling environmental issues and requires federal agencies to act as trustees for both the natural and cultural environment, and involve the public in the decision-making process.
To further involve the public, the port will begin consulting with the newly-formed Bi-State Bridge Replacement Committee (BRAC), which is made up of members from the Columbia River Intertribal Fishing Community; Hood River and Klickitat counties; the Cities of Hood River, White Salmon and Bingen; the Ports of Hood River and Klickitat; ODOT’s Area Commission of Transportation; and the Columbia River Gorge Commission. This committee is expected to have its first meeting in July and will receive information from NEPA consultants and serve as a communicator between consultants and communities.
Since studies have shown that replacing the bridge will have a significant impact on the community and environment, NEPA requires the port to file an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that identifies all agencies involved and how they will coordinate with each other, evaluates the impacts and benefits of the project and explores project alternatives. The FEIS is the final version of this document.
Most of the EIS was finished before the project got set aside several years ago, but since it’s been sitting idle for so long, Findley said, they may have to update the statement in a formal document called a supplemental draft, which will take time.
At its slowest, Findley expects that the NEPA process will be finished in two to three years.
Many of the commissioners and local representatives present at the June 19 work session expressed dissatisfaction with that timeline.
“To tell me that it takes three years — and I realize that that isn’t your fault,” Washington Senator Curtis King (R) said to Findley, “if the bridge went down yesterday, it wouldn’t take you three years to get it done, so why does it take us three years because we don’t have an emergency? It’s part of what is wrong with government,” he said, addressing the common instance of a document sitting on an official’s desk, untouched, for weeks on end.
Findley agreed that the bridge needs to be replaced as fast as possible and said the timeline presented the process at its slowest. “Where we can expedite, we certainly will, it’s a benefit to the project,” she said.
The effort to replace the bridge has been a long time coming: A federal earmark sponsored a series of studies by the Southwestern Washington Regional Transportation Council conducted between 1999 and 2011 that determined the bridge needed to be replaced and recommended what the replacement should look like, but the replacement effort lacked the funding to continue.
The project regained momentum last year when the House of Representatives passed two house bills — HB 2750 and HB 2017 — that, together, made it possible to find enough funds to go on with the replacement effort.
At this point, the Port of Hood River, which participated in those early studies, took the lead on the project, but continues to work with the Southwestern Washington Regional Transportation Council. “They’re still really active and we’re still working with them,” said Genevieve Scholl, communications and special projects manager with the Port of Hood River.
Though permit applications can’t be submitted until the FEIS is done, Findley said that efforts are being made to ensure that process goes as quickly and smoothly as possible. “We’re going to be coordinating with agencies all along so that the mitigation and the project that’s being proposed in the final EIS is what I call ‘permittable’ … so that when we submit those permit applications, we should be in a no surprise situation,” she said.
There are also opportunities to speed up the process of physically getting the bridge built, Clary explained.
The most traditional method of project delivery, Design-Bid-Build (DBB), in which the port puts the project up to bid and a contractor takes it on, could realistically see the bridge finished by 2025.
However, this process is flexible and there are ways to speed it up. One feasible method, made possible by HB 2750, is called a Public Private Partnership (P3). With this method, it’s up to the port to decide how much control it wants give to the private sector over aspects such as tolls and maintenance and how much it wants to keep in-house. “Those are policy decisions that need participation …” Clary said. “… It sounds daunting right now, but as you go through the process, most of these decisions are going to bubble up naturally.”
The port will continue posting updates on its website at portofhoodriver.com/bridge/bridge-replacement-project/bridge-replacement-blog.