By Port of Hood River Executive Director Michael McElwee
The Hood River/White Salmon Interstate Bridge opened on Dec. 9, 1924, when Calvin Coolidge was president. Within a year, 79,545 cars, 67 stage coaches, 3,920 livestock and 3,764 bicycles had crossed the river. In 1939, the lift span was installed after construction of Bonneville Dam. World War II began that year in Europe.
The bridge is a visible reminder of a broad sweep of history from the beginning of the 20th century. It has connected Gorge communities and served a vital role in our regional economy for 93 years. But now it needs to be replaced to serve our region’s needs for the next 100 years.
The bridge is over 30 years past its design life. Its sufficiency rating, a numeric representation of reliability and functionality, is 48.8, a strong indicator of functional obsolescence. It is an extreme bottleneck during frequent highway closures. It has nine-foot, four-inch travel lanes, vastly undersized for today’s vehicles, and no pedestrian or bicycle facilities. The 80,000 pound-weight limit restricts freight movement. A sizable earthquake would likely cause catastrophic damage. The lift span opening represents the greatest navigational hazard on the entire Columbia/Snake River inland waterway system.
For these reasons, and more, the Port of Hood River Commission set course in 2015 to pursue bridge replacement. The prospects are daunting — $280-$300 million will be required to plan, design and construct a replacement, at a time of limited public financing for infrastructure. Our region’s population density, traffic volumes and freight utilization rates are low compared to competing projects. Replacement is not a priority of either state transportation agency because of their significant and largely under-funded system responsibilities.
But there are also reasons for optimism. Early permitting steps are complete. The 2015 FAST Act provides new opportunities for federal funding and talk of a national infrastructure plan continues. The bridge is on the National Highway System (NHS) and transportation projects in the National Scenic Area are FAST Act-eligible. A recent cost/benefit analysis showed significant positive economic benefits — crucial when competing for project funding. And the Oregon Legislature is now considering a significant transportation funding package in 2017.
The port is seeking to build upon these advantages and opportunities. With sponsorship by Rep. Mark Johnson and Sen. Chuck Thomsen, two bills have been introduced in the 2017 Oregon Legislature. House Bill 2750 would provide clear statutory authority for the port to pursue the development and construction of a replacement bridge under either public or private funding models. House Bill 2749 would fund completion of permitting and preliminary engineering work, increasing both the project’s eligibility for construction funding and the potential for a private equity partnership.
Without this legislation, the port’s ability to take the next major steps towards bridge replacement would be greatly diminished. The port would need to focus almost exclusively on keeping the existing bridge safe and operational for as long as possible. Capital funding demands for upgrades and repairs will increase. And prospects for either a reduced weight limit or sudden closure from earthquake or vessel strike will grow by the year.
Community support for bridge replacement efforts is crucial. For more information, visit portofhoodriver.com/bridge. Or, sign up and support the efforts of OneGorge (OneGorge.org), an informal public/private group that advocates for regional legislative priorities.