Bridge gets ODOT’s support for national highway designation

HOOD RIVER BRIDGE moved higher in the ranks of federal recognition this week, with transportation agencies announcing plans to designate the structure as part of the National Highway System. The Port hopes the classification will propel the bridge closer to federal grant funding for a replacement.

Oregon Department of Transportation has joined the Port of Hood River’s mission to make the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge part of the National Highway System (NHS).

The agencies are rallying for the bridge to become part of Highway 35, and the national highway grid, which would put the aging steel structure one step closer to getting grant funding for a $250 million-plus replacement.

“To put together the political persuasion that was necessary for this, to me was really remarkable,” Port President Brian Shortt said of the push for NHS status. “If you think of the magnitude, it’s pretty special.”

ODOT wrote a letter in support last week. The Federal Highway Administration stepped in suit Tuesday, announcing they’ve entered an administrative process with ODOT and WSDOT to give the Hood River Bridge highway connection status.

“ODOT has committed to pursuing NHS designation for the Hood River Bridge,” Paul Mather, ODOT Highway Division administrator, wrote on Feb. 10.

Until this month, the Port Commission wasn’t sure ODOT would support the designation because the Port’s advocacy might clash with the transportation department’s endeavors.

Port Executive Director Michael McElwee said ODOT and the port may be competing with “dueling applications” to the federal government in support of their own projects during the annual grant funding scramble.

However, the port was surprised when ODOT took what they called a “proactive” move, reaching out to WSDOT and FHA to make the bridge part of the NHS.

Highway designation will mark the bridge’s second jump forward in federal recognition.

Last December, Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) successfully pushed for a sweeping U.S. Congress act, Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST Act), to include special consideration for projects within National Scenic Areas — including the Hood River Bridge and Bridge of the Gods— so they could carve their own niche when applying for federal infrastructure grants.

Within the package was a competitive grant program called the National Significant Freight and Highway Projects program. It was designed to fund big freight projects — $100 million or more. However, it requires highways or bridges to be part of the NHS if they want to apply for funding.

That’s where ODOT, WSDOT and FHA came in. If the bridge officially becomes part of the highway system, it will pass another major hurdle and become eligible to apply for FAST Act support.

“Basically we now have both DOTs. Washington DOT and ODOT have now recognized the bridge. And having that now happen, we can make the application for NHS (status),” Shortt said.

Bridge of the Gods — also part of the National Scenic Area, specially declared by FAST Act — could enter the equation as a national highway piece, but that likely won’t change immediately, said Port of Cascade Locks General Manager Paul Koch.

“We will need to do some engineering and impact work in order to get there,” Koch said in an email. “We do not anticipate being in line for any first-year money, but after that we would like to be.”

The Port of Cascade Locks’ 10-year plan for the bridge found roughly $10 million in maintenance costs, mainly deck repairs and electronic/software upgrades.

As for the Hood River Bridge, the port and other agencies will need to start sketching out a grant plan.

The first round of funding will roll out by late fall or winter, McElwee said, and the port will need to develop a staff recommendation if they decide to apply during the first year of the grant program.

“Once you start the fund process then you have to have the local match. That’s going to be an interesting discussion,” McElwee said.

The impetus for the grant push is the bridge’s struggling role as a freight corridor (see A4 for related letter from McElwee).

The old steel bridge was built in 1924. More than 90 years later, the bridge carries 4 million vehicles annually, including 100,000-pound freight trucks.

However, the bridge is “functionally obsolete,” according to the Port, who has argued the structure’s many deficiencies include narrow travel lanes, lack of a pedestrian or bike path, weak load-bearing capacity, and vulnerability if an earthquake strikes.

Shortt hopes the bridge can get through its political hurdles and secure grant funding soon enough for it to be engineered and re-built within the next 10 years.

“Maybe this is that decade that this bridge gets replaced,” Shortt said.

Port news round-up

The Hood River Port Commission touched base Tuesday on numerous projects, many of which will unfold in March.

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