Port of Vancouver, USA - Master Plan Graphic (Animation prepared by HDR)

The Port of Vancouver provides a unique opportunity to facilitate transportation by water, rail and ground. The ongoing expansion of the Port will remove a major bottleneck, opening track for both freight and passenger rail. Delays on the BNSF Railway and Union Pacific mainlines will decrease by 40% when the project is completed in 2017 and connect the Port to major rail hubs in all directions.

Beginning in 1992, Tom Wiser has been working with the Port of Vancouver to develop multiple large rail projects for the Port’s expansion. Starting in 2004, Tom Wiser ultimately developed the Port and rail master plans for the current $275 million project. Wiser is responsible for maintaining and updating the Port master plan, preparation of Port expansion master plan on a future 600 acres, adjusting the master plan for various prospective tenants, tenant concepts, coordination of final for construction plan sets by large design firms, plus preparing and overseeing the construction sequencing plan. Today, over 22 sub-projects within the final master plan are in various stages of completion. The graphic above displays the Port master plan from the departure point in downtown Vancouver along the BNSF Pasco main to the Terminal 5 loop.

Coordination of Multiple Projects
Wiser coordinated the surveying efforts of MacKay & Sposito for numerous property issues and legal descriptions and worked with City, BNSF, Port, Boise Cascade & Gramor on the preparation of the Vancouver waterfront street/bridge configuration. He assisted in construction oversight of the first phase and continues to review the design work of HDR and HDJ on the final construction plan set, including review of plans and specifications.

Wiser coordinated utility design, assisted in rail material procurement, oversaw the first phase engineering design by DEA/Otak, coordinated the Kinder Morgan track design and facility relocation and worked with the Port to oversee the work of Westmar on the Kinder Morgan pit design.

In addition, Wiser is responsible for preparation of various rail concepts based upon marketing efforts by the Port. He assisted the Port on preparation of NEPA/SEPA documentation regarding environmental impact. Wiser assisted the Port’s right of team with preparation of the required takes and easements prior to preparation of the final design.

The historical rail access to the Port involved a crossing from the Pasco main through diamond crossings of the two Seattle Mains. In addition, the preparation of a departing grain train involved a complete blockage of all of these tracks. The Port wanted to develop an access that removed this and allowed for a robust unit train access into the Port. A number of concepts were developed that brought train access from north of the Vancouver yard along Fruit Valley, from the west around Vancouver Lake, and along 8th street in Vancouver.

View in newly completed trench along the Columbia River, under the BNSF swing span bridge.

An Innovation in Engineering
The final concept involved a unique approach to the rail access by departing the Pasco mains near Columbia Street and utilized a trench structure to lower the tracks under the existing BNSF Columbia River bridge and then through a corridor occupied by an existing malt facility set of silos and old drum house. This involved significant effort to develop a plan for new bridges at Esther, Grant and 7th Streets with a shoo fly for the BNSF double mains and vertical T-Wall construction to maximize development at the West Vancouver Water Front project. The trench walls were designed to shield the tracks from over 10’ of Columbia River flood waters.

Wiser explored many alternative routes to expand the port, including inbound routes from the north, east and west. One plan involved building an underpass below the existing BNSF Seattle Mains to cross into the Port. This is where innovation really came into play. Wiser proposed that instead of impacting the BNSF mains with a costly bridge construction, a trench be built right on the edge of the water, reducing the overall amount of additional track to be built and causing very little impact to the BNSF. The trench rail drops below the 100 year flood plain of the Columbia River and therefore the walls on either side of the trench are designed to hold back the flood waters. The design utilizes a maximum 1.5% curve compensated grade to drop below the existing bridge and then rise back up into the Port.


Before and After Silo Removal

Relocating Tenant Silos
There were multiple options to exit the trench and enter the Port. The preferred concept involved the removal of two large grain silos. This concept took 15 years of congestion out of the BSNF tracks and completely opened up the Port to unit train operations so everything arrives and departs the Port without impacting the BNSF Seattle to Portland main tracks. Wiser developed the 30% preliminary plans for this concept, including which buildings and tracks were to be demolished, which new buildings were to be constructed and new tracks laid. Overseeing this project also involved working with NEPA and SEPA to conduct environmental impact studies for approval.

This South Lead under the BNSF Columbia River Bridge provided a unit train access to the Port with a yard up to 11 tracks wide and a 21’ track spacing. The west end terminates at a unit train loop facility on Terminal 5 and also provides for access to the future 600 acre Port development at Terminal 6/7. A new bridge was developed at Gateway Avenue to provide access over the yard and into the loop. The project involved parting the middle of the existing port and sliding the various facilities to either side to allow the yard to bisect the Port. This involved shifting an auto facility, a large water treatment pond, a bulk unload facility, two yards and a number of industry leads to various facilities.


Terminal 5 Loop Facility

Linking to Major Hubs and New Business
A major undertaking that will not only expand the Port’s capacity and link the region to major rail hubs in all directions, the expansion will bring new companies and more permanent jobs to the Pacific Northwest. The sale of property related to the expansion removed an industry spur, making way for the City’s Columbia Waterfront Development project to move forward and further enhance the local economy.

Challenges and Limitations
Initially, expanding the Port faced several limitations. First, the original Port was small and congested, offering a mere 16 track miles. As the Port's rail access crosses the BNSF Seattle mains utilizing diamond crossings, it created a roadblock to rail traffic throughout the region, especially two Seattle main railways. The construction of over 40 track miles of additional rail in addition to maintaining operations required that several large on-site facilities be relocated. There was no access to the south due to its location on the river and elevation differences. Surrounding communities, Vancouver residents and residents of Portland Metro area, expressed great concerns about the environmental impact of the expansion, some with strong opposition, which had to be overcome.

In addition to the physical restrictions and challenges, the project involved multiple competing priorities. The City of Vancouver, several railroads, tenant businesses, NEPA, SEPA and multiple city and state agencies each had interests and concerns that had to be addressed in the final master plan. Wiser was able to coordinate with all parties, work through any conflicts to find viable solutions and ultimately arrive at a tiered master plan that met the highest priorities of all parties.

Keeping Operations Functional During Construction
The existing port yard, as well as the access to the adjacent industries, needed to be completely split apart to allow this new yard corridor to go down the middle. The critical aspect was to accomplish this while keeping the ports rail operating during each construction phase. Wiser prepared multiple project construction sequencing plans with multiple phases within each one to shift, remove and build track, roads, buildings, etc. It was important to keep the yard operational yet minimize excessive temporary, non-permanent track. The master plan was 90% permanent with 10% being moved in segments. Throughout the process, Wiser ensured the property, construction easements and leases that were necessary to keep the construction moving forward were available and kept current.

A Functional and Flexible Master Plan
Overall the challenge was – and still is – to maintain a functional master plan that continues to evolve and which can be modified to fit the needs of various prospective tenants. The master plan must also be flexible enough to expand out to a total of 600 additional acres, accommodating these future tenants and multiple bulk material facilities competing to manage inbound, unload, load and departing trains simultaneously throughout each day.

Wiser completed construction plans made up of various multiple small project plans which allowed the Port to hire its own crews to build the tracks. Wiser over saw the small project plans.

Wiser will continue to work with the Port of Vancouver as the master plan for the Port evolves and unfolds for several years to come. He remains responsible for the construction sequencing and phases, concept plans for prospective tenants as well as rail, road and building construction.