West Vancouver Freight Access Program Management

Port of Vancouver aerial

West Vancouver Freight Access Program Management

The Largest Capital Improvement Project in the Port’s History

The 1,643-acre Port of Vancouver is located on the Washington-Oregon border along the Columbia River. The Port adjoins a vibrant core of downtown Vancouver, Washington and is situated directly across from Portland, Oregon. The Port is centered in a major transportation hub; the Columbia River inland waterway connects with north/south and east/west interstate and regional highways. As the second-largest port on the Columbia River and third-largest public port district in Washington, it is a major economic engine for the region with fifty Port tenants employing more than 3,200 people. The Port generates $2.9 billion annually and each year, roughly 400 vessels handle five million tons of cargo. Updating rail infrastructure for 21st-century trains was critical to support port activities and spur future economic development. 

In a concerted planning effort by the Port of Vancouver, its tenants, and public and private partners, West Vancouver Freight Access program identified a major expansion of the Port’s internal rail system in order to improve freight rail capacity and efficiency at the Port and throughout the region. 

The largest capital improvement project in the Port’s history, WVFA outlined a multi-year program comprised of 21 projects increasing the internal track miles from 17 to 54. The program’s goal was to improve onsite freight movement and grow its railcar capacity from 50,000 to 400,000 per year while at the same time reduce rail congestion on the BNSF mainline by removing an at-grade crossing. Project elements included rail track expansion, relocation and improvements; rail trench construction; utility and facility relocations; bulk unloading facility enhancements; and construction of the Gateway Avenue overpass. 

Our Streamlining Role

The HDR team was selected to help plan, design and deliver the program as the Port’s program/construction management consultant. We assembled customized teams to provide design, permitting, and grant assistance services as needed throughout the 11-year implementation. Our experience working with railway companies, efficiency in obtaining state and federal permits, and expertise in preparing benefit-cost analyses to support multiple TIGER grant applications helped shape our management and implementation approach to keep the program on schedule and minimize delays. 

Rail Access Challenges

One of the Port’s biggest challenges was developing a new rail access solution that avoided crossing the BNSF’s Portland-Seattle mainline. Previous access to the Port used a low-speed, at-grade diamond railway crossing. Steady increases in mainline freight traffic, high-speed passenger rail service and Port traffic made this access unrealistic to continue using. An overhead structure was impractical since the Port was at a much lower elevation than the mainline. Urban development and major highways immediately parallel to the rail lines made that option unfeasible as well. 

Holistic Collaboration

Working collaboratively, the Port, BNSF and the HDR team conceived a new lead track that would descend under the BNSF Portland-Seattle mainline, progressing through a pile-supported concrete trench constructed partially below the Ordinary High Water elevation on a narrow bank of the Columbia River and beneath the BNSF’s Columbia River swing-span bridge. 

The WVFA program’s “crown jewel” was construction of this trench to support the new lead track. Our holistic, logic-based permitting strategy, developed by a team of biologists, engineers, and construction experts, was vital to success. The three disciplines worked together to develop a top-down construction sequence that would allow maximum production in tandem with maximum protection for the endangered and threatened species residing in the river, which include juvenile salmonid fish. 

The new trench solution allows the city to redevelop its waterfront, connect the regional trail system and create a half-mile-long waterfront park on former industrial land. Our team used out-of-the-box thinking to develop a unique rail trench that can handle extreme unbalanced loading conditions including lateral spread earth loads, hydrostatic head, seismic, wind, wave, and vessel collision forces and keep trains running, even during a 100-year flood. The continuously reinforced concrete pavement design and the foundation piles’ arrangement enabled an expansion joint-free design, meaning there are no long-term, maintenance-cost headaches involving components of bridge structures that are usually the first to fail. 

Another benefit of the WVFA program was increasing the number of tracks to provide the length needed to accommodate unit trains without the need to break them apart. As a result, this improvement enormously benefited existing and future Port tenants by providing more reliable, streamlined rail service. WVFA also is opening up access to the future Columbia Gateway, the largest contiguous tract of undeveloped industrial property in Southwest Washington. The approximately 530-acre property, located just west of the Port's current operations, is a heavy-industrial zone with nearly a mile of direct waterfront on the Columbia River. 

Phased Planning

The WVFA program began construction in 2007 and was completed over the next 11 years in 21 discrete projects. Careful planning ensured that projects were staged in such a way as to permit maximum tenant operations during construction, and sized to match annual Port budgets. 

Our long-range goal throughout our series of WVFA projects was to leverage environmentally-friendly practices in a sustainable way. For example, all of the demolished concrete from the trench project was crushed and reused onsite as track subgrade and general backfill. This eliminated more than 1,500 truck trips to a disposal site. Well over 90 percent of the structural and reinforcing steel used was made from recycled steel, and the new concrete was designed to have a high recycled ground-granulated blast furnace slag content. High-efficiency vertical turbine pumps and LED lights were used for the stormwater pumping and illumination systems. 

Flexible Program Management Approach

The scope and schedule of the program of WVFA projects changed many times over the decade as the Port successfully received various state and federal grants. We maintained a flexible project management approach by repackaging and combining multiple projects at 90 percent design into larger projects to take advantage of the additional funds. Very detailed construction phasing plans were developed for the Port to minimize operational disruptions and maximize track re-use, reducing overall construction costs and minimizing impacts to the Port, its tenants and rail operations during construction.

The overall WVFA program of projects finished ahead of schedule in July 2018 and was $24 million under the original budget of $271 million.

Port of Vancouver aerial


Honor Award (2020)
American Society of Civil Engineers
National Recognition Award (2019)
Engineering Excellence Awards
American Council of Engineering Companies
Grand Award (2019)
Engineering Excellence Awards
American Council of Engineering Companies of Oregon
Innovative Project Design (2016)
Dredging and Port Construction Innovation Awards
IHS Markit
Grand Award (2016)
Engineering Excellence Awards
American Council of Engineering Companies of Oregon