VANCOUVER, Wash.—With their signatures on a landmark agreement to cut red tape and reduce Interstate 5 congestion, managers from 17 federal and state agencies created a new national model for environmental reviews.
Agencies from Washin-gton, Oregon and the federal government agreed to coordinate the review process and expedite decisions without giving up necessary environmental protections when improving or replacing the I-5 bridge across the Columbia River.
"It can save months of time — easily — if not more," said Mike McCabe, of the Oregon Department of State Lands, who helped negotiate the agreement.
The Columbia River Crossing project area includes a five-mile stretch of Interstate 5 from State Route 500 in Vancouver to Columbia Boulevard in Portland and includes the two spans of the Interstate Bridge. Because the project falls within an urbanized area of two states, it is subject to a complex set of federal, state, county and city regulations designed to protect natural, cultural and environmental resources.
The regulatory agencies that may issue permits or approvals as well as the two state transportation agencies sponsoring the project and the federal transportation agencies that may provide funding have signed the Interstate Collaborative Environmental Process Agreement.
The agreement allows regulatory agencies to make formal decisions and receive permits at several points while the project is undergoing review. This process ensures the project team will know early if any issues exist that could prevent issuing necessary environmental permits. Usually, the permits aren't issued until the entire project is approved.
TerrySwanson, representingtheWashington Department of Ecology, said that by being aware of potential problems as they arise, the project can better reduce environmental impacts and avoid expensive project delays.
"The agreement provides the opportunity for resource agencies to weigh in early at the planning and evaluation stages rather than wait until the permitting stage so we can head off bottlenecks down the road," Swanson said.
"Together, we'll get a better product — one that serves the public by ensuring safe, reliable transportation while protecting the environment."
The first chance to put the agreement into effect will come with the Columbia River Crossing project, which is in the early planning stages. Next month, draft alternatives that include ideas to improve the river crossing, public transit, safety and congestion will be available for review and public comment.
By the end of 2006, the number of alternatives will be narrowed for inclusion in a draft Environmental Impact Statement, which is expected to be issued in late 2007. The final environmental impact statement, which focuses on the preferred alternative, is expected to be issued in late 2008.
For more information about the Columbia River Crossing project, call the project office toll-free at 866-396-2726, e-mail [email protected] or visit the project Web site, www.ColumbiaRiverCrossing.org.