Photo by Patrick Mulvihill
REP. GREG WALDEN speaks Friday at the Port of Hood River as Port of Cascade Locks President Jess Groves looks on. The topic of the event was federal legislation passed by the U.S. House that includes transportation projects in National Scenic Areas (including the Columbia River Gorge) as a new category.
As of Friday, November 6, 2015
Hood River County’s bridges and highways found a niche in a sweeping federal transportation bill passed Tuesday by the U.S. House.
Changes to the bipartisan bill, spearheaded by Rep. Greg Walden, and backed by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Portland) and Washington Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Camas), include National Scenic Areas — specifically the Columbia River Gorge — on the list for possible freight and travel project funding.
“Transportation infrastructure is an essential component to efficiently serve the interests of both local residents and visitors to the Scenic Area, and there is a strong need for regional transportation planning and improvement … this includes bridges like the Hood River Bridge and the Bridge of the Gods,” Walden said during his speech on the House floor, according to a news release.
Herrera Beutler and Blumenauer voiced their support for the proposal as well.
Blumenauer called the Gorge a “key freight corridor” of the Pacific Northwest in need of federal aid. “Our bipartisan amendment recognizes that done right, freight projects in National Scenic Areas should be eligible for much needed federal funding,” said Blumenauer.
“These bridges are crucial to the residents and economies of Skamania and Klickitat Counties,” said Herrera Beutler.
The U.S. House included the new language into its long-term transportation bill after Walden’s vocal testimony on the House floor.
The Port of Hood River considered the house bill amendment “good news,” though it didn’t cover “everything we wanted.”
Walden and Port Executive Director Michael McElwee explained at a Friday morning announcement meeting, held at the Port of Hood River conference room, that a criterion in the legislation limits future Scenic Area projects to $100 million or less, and thus wouldn’t cover a comprehensive Gorge-wide transportation plan or a $280 million replacement of the Hood River Bridge.
“It does open the door bit wider … for smaller funded projects,” said McElwee.
Specifically, it could allow for environmental impact statements and other key steps toward a larger initiative, he said.
Port President Brian Shortt felt the success of the house bill, in the Port’s case, can also be measured in exposure.
“To get this far, is a really exceptional step for the Port,” said Shortt at Tuesday’s Port Commission meeting. “Even if it doesn’t mean money, now the language is in there and all these people know about it — they know the issues out in the river and they know the issues in the age of the bridge…and of course the impact (to the bridge) even amped it up some more.”
Shortt referred to a suspected barge collision earlier in October that damaged the north lift pier of the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge.
Walden said Friday that funding for transportation projects around the nation will be “highly competitive,” but the Scenic Area language in the new House bill increases the prominence of the Columbia Gorge NSA.
There are currently 12 National Scenic Areas in eight states across the nation, including the Columbia Gorge NSA—the largest in the country, weighing in at 292,500 acres along 85 miles of the Columbia River.
Shortt said there are at least 5,600 bridges across the U.S. that require a replacement — but the inclusion of the Scenic Area language puts the Hood River Bridge and Bridge of the Gods within a more visible category of 12.
The amendment was included Tuesday in Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act (H.R. 3763), a long-term surface transportation bill to reauthorize and reform federal highway, transit, and highway safety programs.