Building Bridges: Aging local spans must be considered part of a national problem

Hood River port officials held a wide-ranging conversation about bridges and highways Saturday morning with U.S. Rep Greg Walden.

The protracted, unfunded, planning process for replacing the aging Hood River Interstate bridge came up, with Port Commissioner Jon Davies telling Walden, “There’s no real champion to take on our new bridge. From the Port’s view this is not a Port issue; it’s a regional issue.”

He’s right. But only half right: it’s a national issue.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars the port has been and is now spending on bridge welding repairs, replacement of bridge decks (what the vehicles drive on) and re-painting is a reflection of a far greater issue: the nation’s serious infrastructure problem.

Everywhere, not just Hood River and Cascade Locks, bridges and highways are failing.

Davies, fellow commissioner Rich McBride and port Executive Director Michael McElwee urged Walden to consider the federal government’s role in replacing the Interstate and Bridge of the Gods. The solution would also include the Gorge Commission, Mid-Columbia Council of Governments, state agencies on both sides of the river, and the ports.

“We need someone to say, ‘You guys take the lead and push for the new bridge,’ because at some point it needs to happen,” Davies said.

Walden acknowledged that past decisions over ownership and responsibility “doesn’t take away from the fact that this bridge was built in 1927 and is going to need to be replaced.” Walden pointed to the Hood River bridge’s narrowness as well as the age, “and the need for continual maintenance.”

Companies on both sides of the river feel the effects when any cross-Columbia bridge is closed or affected by weight reductions, pointing to the distinct economic interest that should drive a bi-state solution.

It not a border issue, but regional issue requiring a federal role.

“Our bridge is an orphan as far as ODOT is concerned,” Davies noted. The departments of transportation in Oregon and Washington are not officially part of the bi-state commission for long-range planning for the interstate bridge, and that’s a situation that needs to change. The bridge is a vital link between the two states.

But the responsibility does not end there.

“We think it’s appropriate for the federal government to take a role at some level,” Davies told Walden, adding that any new federal transportation bill “should have a piece directed at these old bridges.”

The two-state junction of aging, well-used bridges makes the Gorge a good candidate for a place to start a real conversation about the overall issue of repairing our nation’s bridges and highways. Walden could convene a white paper gathering of federal, state and local officials to examine how to fund these projects in the near and distant future.

The reality is that without some kind of aggressive steps by the federal government, the aging metal bridges of Hood River County will not be replaced before our grandchildren become drivers.

Finally, how you get people to and from the bridges is part of the problem. The freeway stretch fronting Hood River is a busy one with three separate exits and a congested interface with downtown Hood River streets. Pieces of Interstate 84 in and around Hood River have been repaired or replaced in the last two years, but what keeps cropping up are serious repair issues such as the 2-foot hole that opened up near exit 63 last summer.

Port officials told Walden Saturday that one way to ameliorate damage to the freeway between mileposts 61 and 64 would be to get ODOT to reduce the maximum speed to 55 or 60 just as you see in Portland, Troutdale and Salem as the freeway passes through those urban settings.

The fact is that 84 passes through an urban setting in Hood River, and slowing traffic to 55 mph for three miles is a wise step in the right direction.

It will take a combination of policy, behavior and funding changes to preserve and improve our vital infrastructure.

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