Bridges to the future

The frightening collapse of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington last week probably has Oregonians wondering whether our state has similar spans that could collapse if struck by a semitrailer or some other vehicle. The answer is that it's difficult to say for sure, but Oregon's bridges are for the most part in better shape thanks to the foresight of state legislators a decade ago.

Armed with studies of the state's bridges that started in 2001, the Legislature enacted the Oregon Transportation Investment Acts. OTIA III, passed in 2003, issued state bonds to finance $1.3 billion in work on state bridges, $300 million for local bridge projects and $86 million for city and county projects.

The projects that resulted strengthened, refurbished and replaced bridges from one end of the state to the other, including several in Southern Oregon.

One remaining weak spot is the aging Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia between Portland and Vancouver.

The bridge that failed in Washington is a type known as steel through truss. Its design is classified as "fracture critical," meaning if a single member breaks, the entire structure may collapse.

There are three steel through truss bridges on Oregon freeways. Two of them are the north- and southbound portions of the Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River. The third is on Interstate 82, which crosses the Columbia at Umatilla. Washington state is responsible for its maintenance.

One of the Columbia spans was built in 1917, the other in 1958. Both are scheduled to be replaced — but only if Washington state lawmakers come through with Washington's share of the cost.

Oregon has committed to contribute $450 million to the project, contingent on Washington putting up a matching amount. So far, Washington has not agreed. If Washington lawmakers fail to approve the state's share, the $3.4 billion project will miss a deadline to qualify for federal funds to cover the balance of the project.

Replacing bridges is tremendously expensive, and government critics dislike the need to borrow money to pay for the work. But the alternative is to do nothing, and see critical infrastructure fail.

Fortunately, no one was killed when the Skagit River bridge collapsed, but the outcome could have been much worse. And the effect on the economy of the entire West Coast cannot be overlooked.

I-5 is the main route for moving goods up and down the West Coast (the truck that struck the bridge in Washington was hauling a drill casing from Canada to Vancouver, Wash.)

Oregonians can be thankful their lawmakers had the foresight to make necessary repairs before it was too late.

Share This Story