Bridge of the Gods repairs to begin Oct. 1

Weight restriction has affected freight movement since July

By Eric Florip, Columbian transportation & environment reporter

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State and local officials have solidified a plan to repair the Bridge of the Gods by the end of this year and remove a severe weight restriction that has cramped freight movement in the area for months.

That sound you hear is a collective sigh of relief coming from the Columbia River Gorge.

"It really felt like a weight has been lifted from us," said John McSherry, executive director of the Port of Skamania County in Stevenson. "Now that there's a resolution, it really has taken a lot of stress off of everybody."

Work to fix the 87-year-old span will begin Oct. 1. Crews will focus on two areas of concern: "gusset plates," which are the metal plates holding load-bearing beams together on the bridge, and "stringers," the steel support beams that run under the deck of the bridge. Both components showed some weaknesses during an inspection by the Oregon Department of Transportation earlier this year.

The repairs are expected to cost $1.14 million, according to the Port of Cascade Locks, Ore., which owns the bridge. Officials secured a state grant through ODOT to help pay for the fix. Funds will ultimately come from the state, the port and pass-through money from the federal government.

"Right now, everybody is committed to getting this done by Dec. 31," said Paul Koch, interim director of the Port of Cascade Locks.

This year's inspection prompted ODOT to announce in July that the weight limit on the bridge would be reduced from 80,000 pounds to 16,000 pounds. The change precluded just about any tractor-trailer from crossing, as well as other large vehicles such as tour buses.

The Bridge of the Gods crosses the Columbia River near Stevenson and Cascade Locks, Ore. Finding another route across the river is no small detour. The next-closest options are the Hood River Bridge, 25 miles to the east, and Interstate 205, 40 miles to the west.

Large trucks heading to the Port of Skamania County, for example, would normally use Interstate 84 on the Oregon side of the Columbia River and cross at the Bridge of the Gods. With the weight restriction in place, they're forced to use long stretches of state Highway 14 in Washington -- a winding, two-lane roadway with significant elevation changes.

The arrangement has made freight movement more costly and time-consuming for many tenants at the Port of Skamania County, McSherry said. Some businesses have been able to split extra costs with the vendors on the receiving end of those trips, he said.

"Knowing that there's an end in sight … has allowed deals like that to occur," McSherry said.

ODOT will lead the actual repair work, Koch said. The work could require overnight closures of the bridge at times, he said, or at least single-lane closures.

Koch credited other regional partners with getting the project on a fast-track for approval. Both ports and other jurisdictions passed resolutions declaring an emergency, calling for the same urgency at the state level.

"We're certainly treating it as if it was an economic emergency," said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. "We're moving forward as quickly as we can."

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