Public involvement group meets on bridge project; inspection confirms bridge needs replacing

The first meeting of a public involvement group marks a monumental milestone for the Hood River/White Salmon Interstate Bridge Replacement Project, but there is still a long way to go.

Efforts are still being made to involve The Columbia River Intertribal Fishing Council (CRIFC) and, meanwhile, a recent bridge inspection only confirmed what many in the community already know: The bridge needs to be replaced, and soon.

David Evans & Associates Inc. (DEA) carried out a regular inspection, as well as two specialized inspections focused on specific concerns, of the bridge between July 8-16. The inspections were under direct contract from ODOT and funded by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). A draft of their report was sent to ODOT on July 21 for review, and then sent to the Port of Hood River.

The port’s bridge engineer, Mark Libby, of HDR Engineering Inc. (HDR), was contracted to thoroughly review the report and deliver the port’s comments to ODOT. Libby gave a presentation at the port commission’s regular Nov. 6 meeting to brief the commissioners on his findings.

Some of the major findings of the inspection were: Damaged guardrail posts; distortion of some of the plates that bear on the rocker bearing pins, which are pieces that help displace movement on the bridge; and loose stringers — long structural pieces attached to the floor beams — that cause lots of banging noises on the bridge.

“There’s evidence that some of this has been here for 10 years,” Libby said at the meeting.

When asked by Commissioner Brian Shortt if the bridge can survive until the end of the 10-year window the port has to replace it, Libby said “You’ll be okay. The bridge will continue to function,” but noted that “maintenance, unattended, leads to bigger problems” and recommended that the port “tend to those things that could exacerbate problems.”

Progress is being made on the replacement project: The public involvement plan that included interviews with stakeholders and strategizing public involvement is close to completion, said Project Director Kevin Greenwood; and the first meeting of the Environmental Impact Study (EIS) Work Group was held on Nov. 8.

This group will serve as a communicator between consultants and communities while the final EIS and other National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requirements are completed.

“I think that we’ve got something that’s going to make sense,” Greenwood said at the Nov. 6 meeting. “We’re looking more for a consensus-based structure … and really, I think the route that is going to allow that consensus structure to be successful is all the preliminary studies and reports that have already been completed.”

NEPA provides federal agencies a framework on handling environmental issues and requires federal agencies to act as trustees for both the natural and cultural environment, and involve the public in the decision-making process.

The EIS Work Group is made up of stakeholders on both sides of the river, including representatives from Hood River and Klickitat counties; the Cities of Hood River, White Salmon and Bingen; the Ports of Hood River and Klickitat; ODOT’s Area Commission of Transportation, Columbia River Gorge Commission and others.

CRIFC was invited to participate as well; but has not yet agreed to do so.

NEPA requires that the project organizers involve the tribes in the bridge replacement process — and that will still happen — Greenwood said, but “what we’re really trying to do is to have a comprehensive and lasting relationship with the tribes beyond just NEPA.”

The port has recently contracted Akana, a Native American-owned professional services firm, to advise on tribal outreach and facilitate contact with key tribal representatives; and an Akana representative and Greenwood intend to make trips out to each of the tribes within the next few weeks.

With Akana’s help, Greenwood has also drafted an official letter from the port commission to the tribes, touching on the port’s commitment to respecting the tribes’ role in NEPA and partnering with tribes beyond the important natural resource issues, and asking them to participate in the EIS Work Group going forward.

“(We’re) doing what we can to share a real sincere wanting them to participate and be part of this project,” Greenwood said.

Meanwhile, the port is working on keeping the current bridge in working condition until the replacement project can be finished.

The port’s executive director, Michael McElwee, said that the most urgent repairs — the loose stringers and the guardrail — could potentially be worked into the port’s two-year budget plan.

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