Over the past four years, the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council has worked on planning for a new bridge over the Columbia River between Bingen/White Salmon and Hood River.
The Columbia River Crossing Feasibility Study has proceeded in partnership with the Washington Department of Transportation, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and several local jurisdictions. A number of public workshops have been held to seek public input on what the bridge should look like and what capabilities it should offer.
Recently, however, draft guidelines related to the bridge replacement project were released by the Columbia River Gorge Commission (CRGC), and some of what was included in the commission's draft guidelines caught bridge planners by surprise.
The CRGC's bridge guidelines addressed "visual quality," "historic design elements," and "recreation and pedestrian bicycle access."
"I was shocked to read the guidelines the Gorge Commission drafted," said Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel, who serves as a member of the Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (SWRTC). "They threw out the design we'd proposed, and recommended, at a minimum, that sidewalks and bike lanes be 14 feet, six inches wide, and be placed on both sides of the bridge. That's double the width of the existing bridge -- just for pedestrians and bicycles."
Brian Litt, senior planner for the CRGC, explained that the guidelines were necessary because building a new bridge would represent a major alteration in the landscape.
"Because a new bridge will be so important and will be there for so long, the Gorge Commission felt it needed to be an aesthetic plus for the region as well as providing for future economic growth," Litt said.
Dean Lookingbill, transportation director of the SWRTC, sent a letter to Anne Squier, chair of the CRGC, warning that the proposed guidelines could "push the costs for the new bridge beyond a level of financial feasibility."
"We would submit that the draft Management Plan Revision Guidelines as initially proposed conflict with the recommendations developed by the Advisory Committee and will not allow the best engineering practices to determine the final bridge design," Lookingbill wrote in an April 23 letter. "Our biggest concern is with the recreation and pedestrian/bicycle access guidelines, which specifies that pedestrian and viewing facilities shall be provided on both sides."
Prigel explained that he was concerned the proposed guidelines could greatly increase the project's cost.
"I believe it would double the cost of the bridge," Prigel explained before the CRGC revised its guidelines. "In a world of unlimited funds, it would be great. But they want to see the bridge constructed with historical elements. They recommended multiple viewing platforms on both sides of the bridge. And room to accommodate skateboarding was mentioned on there. Do we really want skateboarding on the bridge?"
In one section, the CRGC's April 19 draft proposed having pedestrian/bicycle lanes that are "wide enough to safely accommodate and encourage walking, bicycling, and other uses (such as rollerblading, skating, skateboarding, or wheelchair access)."
"There's no reality," said Randy Anderson, a member of the Bingen City Council. "Who's going to pay for it?"
"We are," quipped council member Jeanette Fentie. "The bridge toll just went up to $10."
However, Litt pointed out that the list was not intended to promote the bridge as a place for any specific uses.
"It was just intended to be a non-exclusive list of examples," Litt explained. "We definitely got feedback that we might not want to allow that, so it was deleted."
In response to the complaints, the CRGC adopted revised bridge replacement guidelines on April 27. Dropped in the revisions were calls for viewing areas on both sides of the river; plans for elevated sidewalks "or other barriers between the motor vehicle lanes and the pedestrian facilities"; and pedestrian/bicycle lanes wide enough to accommodate activites such as rollerblading or skateboarding.
Litt said most of the changes proposed by SWRTC had been agreed to, and the early versions were simply drafts.
"What RTC was responding to was the April 19 version. On April 27, CRGC made additional changes and adopted that version," Litt explained.
Prigel said he was satisfied with the final revisions in the CRGC guidelines.
"What upset me the most were that the recommendations from the consultants were onerous. The revised draft language toned that down a bit," Prigel said. "Everyone agreed we needed a pedestrian walkway, but we couldn't afford it on both sides. This (the CRGC's revisions) strikes a balance. Overall, I feel much better than I did. Ultimately, the Gorge Commission did the right thing."
"I really don't see any snags," he said. "It's been a really good process. I think the final guidelines adopted are workable. All the plans before that were just drafts. CRGC listened very carefully to input and made a number of changes. They have the flexibility they need but also direction on what the bridge should look like. It's an exciting project and is so important to the community and the region. We were glad to see the agencies were so active in providing input. I feel the Gorge Commission listened well to the comments."
A recently completed Draft Environmental Impact Statement identified a preferred location for a new bridge, which is proposed to go directly west of the existing toll bridge.
No timeline has been given for when construction of a new bridge might begin.