Under a cracked HR bridge, lawmakers view a common problem

In a bi-partisan effort, two state officials climbed scaffolding on Friday to view repairs on a cracked Hood River bridge.

“It was really good to have the visual to go with what we’ve been hearing and reading about,” said Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, after a tour by executives from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT.)

She and Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, both donned their work boots for the field trip.

Mark Hirota, ODOT engineer, gave Smith and Metsger an “up close and personal” look at fissures along the underspan of the westbound Interstate 84 bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. Although the two legislators only visited the structure near downtown Hood River, ODOT Region 1 Manager Kaye Van Sickel said it provided an example of the same problems found on other aging bridges statewide.

“I thought this was a good project where they could see the cracking and how we’re addressing it,” said Van Sickel, who arranged the one-hour tour.

She said the average age of Oregon’s bridges is 39 years old although 20 percent have reached their life expectancy of 50 years. According to ODOT, the Hood River bridge was built in 1952 and is one of 555 structures within the state constructed between the late 1940s and early 1960s from reinforced concrete deck girders. Of these types of bridges, 487 now need some level of repair and 56 percent will require total replacement at some point in the near future.

Van Sickle said ODOT estimated that about $3 billion is needed to repair and strengthen all of the bridges statewide, a figure which greatly exceeds the current spending level of $79 million per year.

After viewing the cracks in the Gorge bridge, both Smith and Metsger agreed that finding some of the estimated $615 million to repair more than 300 of the most damaged crossings within the state needed to be given a high priority by the legislature during the next budget session.

“It’s particularly important for our economy right now to try and minimize these problems,” said Metsger. “We’ve got a huge safety issue in this state and the longer we wait the more expensive the solution becomes.”

Mestger currently serves as vice-chair of the Senate Transportation Committee and Smith is seeking a seat on the same committee in the House.

The $1 million fix for the Hood River bridge was expedited because it was incorporated into the freeway repaving project, saving both time and money. That work is expected to last for up to 20 years and involves using miles of steel cable as a “super rubber band” to strengthen the bridge, followed by an application of epoxy to close the cracks which run along its length.

Last October, ODOT imposed weight restrictions for trucks carrying a load of more than 105,500 pounds after inspectors found cracks on the horizontal concrete support beams of the bridge. Since that time ODOT officials contend splits in the concrete have continued to grow in number and size from the stress of about 29,000 passing vehicles each day. Since the Sandy River Bridge along I-84 also has the same problem, heavy trucks have been forced to take a long detour using Highway 35 and U.S. 26 until repairs have been made.

Charlie Sciscione, ODOT district manager, said because of the importance of I-84 as a commercial corridor, the two Gorge bridges topped the list for repair work that is expected to be completed within the next two months.

But that only resolves part of the problem and both Metsger and Smith believe the state needs to take proactive steps to tackle the growing safety issue.

“I don’t think I’ll ever drive across a bridge again and not think about this visit, this has got to be a priority,” said Smith.

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