Free bridge crossings in HR, CL

The Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks.

New weight restrictions were placed on the Bridge of the Gods earlier this week and it appears they will likely remain in place on the structure, at the very least, for the next several months.

Port of Cascade Locks Interim Port Manager Paul Koch said the Oregon Department of Transportation, which is responsible for conducting the bridge inspections, identified in a recent load analysis of the port-owned bridge that “a combination of gussets and stringers” need to be repaired or replaced for reasons that ranged from rust to corrosion caused by acidic bird feces. Gussets are pieces of metal used to connect beams and girders to bridge trusses as a means of reinforcing the structure. Koch said the term “stringers” is “engineer-speak for support beams.”

As a result of the study, the port was directed by ODOT to reduce the previous weight limit on the bridge — which ranged from 80,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds depending on the time of day and day of the week — to 16,000 pounds on Tuesday. The limit will keep semis off the bridge that spans a section of the Columbia River between Cascade Locks and Stevenson, but Koch said most “small delivery trucks” would still be able to cross and noted that all emergency vehicles would still have access to the bridge.

While Koch maintains the bridge is safe, Darren Nichols, executive director for the Columbia River Gorge Commission, said the weight restrictions are a safety issue because more trucks and other large vehicles will be diverted to the Hood River Bridge and/or spend more time on State Route 14 — neither of which Nichols said was suited to carry more traffic.

“That bridge is longer, narrower and already carries more traffic,” he said of the Hood River Bridge in a letter sent to Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Washington Governor Jay Inslee to inform them of the issue. “The 45-mile detour will significantly increase the large number of trucks and the total vehicle miles on Interstate 84 and on Washington State Route 14, a narrow, winding two-lane highway. Vehicle accidents occur frequently on SR-14 and we are concerned that the Bridge of the Gods closure will lead to more congestion and safety problems along the detour route.”

Koch was concerned not only about the loss of toll revenue — he estimated about 100 trucks over 60,000 pounds cross the bridge every day and are charged a dollar per axle — but the impact of the local economy of Cascade Locks, which he said currently suffers from 16 percent unemployment.

Nichols agreed and said he understood that one local sawmill will have to spend an extra $500,000 this summer to re-route its lumber trucks because of the new weight limit. Additionally, he said there will be “a loss of the recreation season for people driving motor homes or towing an RV trailer.”

Tuesday marked the second time weight limits have changed on the bridge this year. In March, ODOT directed the port to reduce the weight limit from 80,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds during weekends and most weekday hours following a preliminary analysis of the bridge.

According to Koch, the port was first notified by ODOT in November of last year that the 1,858-foot cantilever bridge, which was originally built in 1926, needed to be fixed or else the weight limit would be reduced. However, Koch said there was little the port could do as ODOT had not yet completed its full analysis of the bridge. The port has had an intergovernmental agreement with ODOT since 2006, which charges the state transportation agency with performing inspections of the Bridge of the Gods. Up until November of last year, Koch said past ODOT reports didn’t indicate there was anything wrong with the structure.

On Tuesday evening, a joint port commission meeting was held with the Port of Skamania County and the Port of Cascade Locks. Nichols was present at the meeting as were State Representative Mark Johnson and staffers from Rep. Chuck Thomsen’s office to listen to a presentation given by ODOT and the Federal Highway Administration about the status of the bridge. Koch said the decision was made to appeal both states’ governors for help, asking they declare an “economic and safety emergency” for the region. He also said both Rep. Johnson and Rep. Thomsen have signed a letter urging Gov. Kitzhaber to declare the emergency, which would free up more funding for the bridge repairs and expedite the process.

In the meantime, Koch said the port has directed its engineer, HNTB, to formulate a proposal on how to best fix the bridge.

“We’re hoping to have the first preliminary proposal by next week,” he said Wednesday morning. “That proposal will identify what will be repaired, what the cost will be, and what the schedule of improvements will look like.”

Although the scoping of the project isn’t complete, Koch said the first phase will involve the repair of 16 gussets, which will cost approximately $220,000 and be covered by ODOT. Koch said the remainder of the work will involve the repair of anywhere from 18-24 stringers and gussets, but wasn’t sure of what the cost would be. He added that ODOT has been “reprogramming federal dollars that we will use for the bridge improvements,” but said the port would likely contributing its own money to the project, which would come from a $100,000 bridge repair, replacement, and preservation fund.

Koch said ideally, the port is aiming to have the repairs completed and the 80,000-pound weight limit restored by the end of the year, but that hinges on the state emergency declaration.

“If that doesn’t happen, that means the local economy is not going to have access to that bridge until November 2014,” he said, as the port would have to try and look for other funding, such as federal grants.

For truckers or other motorists who have vehicles over 16,000 pounds and have purchased ticket books to cross the Bridge of the Gods, the port said it will honor requests for refunds.

The Port of Cascade Locks can be reached at 541-374-8619.

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