Ports fret over weight restriction on Bridge of the Gods

Span may be repaired by end of the year

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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When a severe weight restriction recently took effect on the Bridge of the Gods between Stevenson and Cascade Locks, Ore., it forced thousands of freight trucks that use the span each month to find a new route across the Columbia River.

That's no small detour. The next crossing to the east is the Hood River Bridge, some 25 miles away. To the west, it's Interstate 205 in Vancouver and Portland, about 40 miles away.

The Bridge of the Gods could be repaired by the end of this year. For the ports that depend most heavily on the span, a solution can't come soon enough.

"It is a really big deal," said John McSherry, executive director of the Port of Skamania County in Stevenson. "It precludes all kinds of trucks from crossing the bridge."

In July, an Oregon Department of Transportation inspection prompted officials to announce that the weight limit on the bridge would be reduced from 80,000 pounds to 16,000 pounds. That prevents any semitrailer from crossing, as well as other large vehicles such as tour buses.

Large trucks accessing the Port of Skamania County would normally use Interstate 84 on the Oregon side of the Columbia River and cross at the Bridge of the Gods. Now they must use long stretches of state Highway 14 — a two-lane, winding roadway with significant elevation changes. That creates major safety and efficiency concerns for the businesses now having to use it, McSherry said.

Inspectors identified two areas of concern on the Bridge of the Gods earlier this year, said ODOT spokesman Dave Thompson. One emerged in the span's "gusset plates" -- those are the metal plates that hold load-bearing beams together on the bridge. When loads shift in moving traffic, the gusset plates absorb some of that stress, Thompson said. Thirty-two of the bridge's 350 or so plates need strengthening, he said.

The inspection also found weakness in the structure's "stringers," or steel support beams that run under the deck of the bridge.

Repairs could begin "imminently," Thompson said. Strengthening those components could mean additional rivets or welding, he said. The total cost of repairs will be about $500,000, according to ODOT, with the cost likely shared by state dollars and the Port of Cascade Locks, which owns the bridge.

"Hopefully once the repairs are done, then the weight restriction will be removed," Thompson said. "That's the expectation on all sides."

Those most affected by the weight restriction say it's hard to understate the importance of the bridge, which opened in 1926. Both ports and other local jurisdictions have passed resolutions declaring an emergency. Local officials are hoping for the same urgency at the state level and an expedited repair, said Paul Koch, interim manager at the Port of Cascade Locks.

Since March, weight on the bridge had been limited to 80,000 pounds at one time with a flagger, or 60,000 without. Reducing the limit so drastically now doesn't just hurt port tenants who ship goods to and from their businesses, McSherry said. For the Port of Skamania County, it also interrupts leaders' ability to attract new businesses, he said.

The impact isn't as direct in Clark County. At the Port of Vancouver, for example, trucks heading east generally use Interstate 84 or cross the river at Biggs Junction on U.S. Highway 97, said spokeswoman Theresa Wagner.

"Freight usually moves in the corridor of least resistance," Wagner said. "Where it's most efficient is where it goes."

Eric Florip: 360-735-4541; http://twitter.com/col_enviro; eric.florip@columbian.com