In The Media

Washington State’s Port Of Vancouver: Improving Access to the Global Marketplace While Staying Open for Business

The Port of Vancouver was staring down a major headache. Already a significant economic engine for the area around Portland, Oregon, the Washington State port knew it needed a major expansion of its rail system to keep up in the global marketplace. But that expansion would have to create new rail access that avoided busy mainline freight traffic and high-speed passenger rail service nearby, while at the same time minimizing the impact on dozens of tenants.

Enter HDR. Our Senior Project Manager and Vice President Kurt W. Reichelt, P.E., successfully led the port’s 11-year, $252-million West Vancouver Freight Access expansion. The largest capital improvement in the port’s history, the project vastly improved the port’s ability to efficiently handle rail traffic and larger freight volumes and reduced rail congestion on critical rail lines by up to 40 percent.

Reichelt provides a detailed description of the intricate series of elements involved in this recent massive undertaking in “Improved Access,” a feature article he authored for “Civil Engineering,” the magazine of the American Society of Civil Engineers. He supervised an HDR team that performed program management, engineering and environmental services needed to prepare initial concept master plan studies; then preliminary and final plans, specifications, permits and cost estimates for a series of 21 projects in the program.

At times, the program’s complex planning and operational tactics were deployed like a well-choreographed production that organized a supporting cast of hundreds, if not thousands. “Because maintaining services to port tenants was critical during and after construction, the program team interviewed tenants to determine their operating patterns and rail service characteristics, service reliability needs, sensitivity to service disruption, and other factors that could influence decisions regarding construction staging,” Reichelt points out.    

As a result, the solidly coordinated approach enabled our team to apply innovative engineering solutions. A pile-supported concrete trench was constructed along a narrow bank of the Columbia River to provide a new rail entrance into the port, for example, tackling the rail congestion problem. 

To keep the port competitive with other West Coast ports, the Port of Vancouver also had to fine-tune its capability to receive and discharge unit trains — those trains dedicated to transporting a single commodity between one point of origin and one destination on behalf of a single shipper. Existing tracks at the port were too short to allow the port to process arriving unit trains without dividing them into smaller sections of cars. So new loop tracks were constructed for the unit trains, more than tripling the number of tracks long enough to hold entire unit trains intact, Reichelt notes.

The article also gives an overview of productive solutions that were devised and coordinated across the entire program. These solutions dealt with an array of project issues (e.g., implementing responsible cost control and change management processes; working with environmental staff to address ecological factors; and leveraging the port’s existing structural components in ways that would enhance — not hinder — program goals). 

Note: The magazine article is accessible only through a subscription-based service. ASCE members can use their login information to access it. For any questions, please reach out to Reichelt at Kurt.Reichelt [at]

About Our Ports & Maritime Experience
With experience designing harbor improvements, integrating resiliency planning and providing new-terminal program management, our custom maritime project teams create value through our multidisciplinary approach. Knowledgeable coastal and structural engineers use 2D and 3D models to plan and design port expansion and rehabilitation projects. Our freight planners, economic analysts and rail operations experts help owners identify opportunities to optimize facilities to support growth and accommodate future needs. In addition to our work at Port of Vancouver USA in Vancouver, Washington, our portfolio of work includes complex projects at ports across the United States, including a new container terminal in Charleston, South Carolina, On-Dock Support Facility at Pier B Rail Yard in Long Beach, California, Conley Terminal Modernization Program in Boston, and JAXPORT Capital Improvement Program GEC in Jacksonville, Florida.