Bridge of Gods limits have broad, negative impacts

The Bridge of the Gods has been closed to heavy truck traffic for nearly five months now as the Port of Cascade Locks works to repair the bridge and lift the Oregon Department of Transportation weight restrictions that have been in place on the structure since July.

Though the bridge experiences significantly less traffic than its closest neighbors — the Interstate 205 bridge to the west and the Hood River Bridge to the east — it’s still of great economic importance to both sides of the Columbia River Gorge.

A recent preliminary report released by Oregon State University Community Economist Bruce Sorte shows that if the Bridge of the Gods continued to be impacted by weight restrictions for a full year, it would result in a total loss of $225,332 in toll revenues for the port and “an estimated loss of $239,120 of income within the region.” Losses were projected by analyzing bridge traffic, as well as the “trade flows of goods, services, and tourism that rely on the Bridge of the Gods,” as well as conducting personal interviews with approximately 20 community business, nonprofit and government leaders.

According to Sorte’s report, the region’s economy is already experiencing “negative shock,” particularly Skamania County, where he estimated that 5-10 percent of the economy has been impacted by the weight restrictions. Sorte explained that businesses have experienced increased costs as they have had to send trucks on alternate routes, noting also that “many of the businesses that were interviewed have experienced delayed shipments due to this (closure) of the bridge to trucks.”

In a region where the average earnings per job are sometimes significantly less than the national average, Sorte said “it is very difficult for sectors that depend on the Bridge, primarily manufacturing and tourism, to offset the lost income from the weight reductions.”

Although the weight restrictions imposed on the Bridge of the Gods are scheduled to be lifted in January, Sorte warned that a long-term shutdown of truck traffic would likely result in “weakened linkages among regional businesses and increased uncertainty for existing and potential businesses that might want to expand or relocate to the region.”

The report did not specifically address how or if local economies have been affected by the bridge closures or delays during the repair project, which also impacts non-truck traffic. However, Sorte did note “uncertainty about future disruptions can be almost as serious as an actual (closure) of the bridge.”

Port Interim General Manager Paul Koch assured the repair work needed to restore the bridge’s previous weight limits is still on track for completion by the end of the month. He added that ODOT will also be implementing a new strategy to get waiting vehicles off Washington State Route 14 during bridge delays, where significant traffic backups have occurred during the bridge work. SR 14 has seen an increase in truck traffic since the bridge restrictions this summer, according to Sorte, which adds to the issue.

When asked if he was surprised about the degree to which the weight restrictions affect Gorge economies, Koch said he was not.

“Most people run around here thinking this is a little bridge connecting these two towns,” he said, referring to Stevenson and Cascade Locks, “but this bridge has a big, regional economic impact.”

In order to help pay for future repairs and the eventual replacement of the bridge — which, if the Hood River Bridge is any indicator, will likely be decades and hundreds of millions of dollars down the road — the Port of Cascade Locks has tentatively proposed doubling tolls on vehicles with more than two axles. A town hall meeting on the toll increases has been planned for Thursday, Jan. 23; no time or meeting location has been set yet. If a toll increase is approved, Koch said it would likely go into effect April or May 2014.

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