The Interstate 5 Bridge trunnion replacement project — and the accompanying nine-day closure of the northbound span of the twin bridges — is now scheduled to begin Sept. 19, the Oregon Department of Transportation announced Friday.
The news comes one day after the agency announced a last-minute delay of the project, which had previously been scheduled to begin Sept. 12.
The pieces were all in place; the replacement components were waiting on a barge, the falsework was built and the crane and other equipment stood at the ready. After two years of planning and outreach, the project was all set to begin this morning.
Then came the wildfires. The blazes spread up and down the West Coast this week, fueled by unusually dry and windy weather conditions. The fires in Oregon had collectively burned more than a million acres as of Friday, according to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
The evacuation areas expanded steadily throughout the week, inching closer to the Portland metro area until finally, with barely 24 hours to go until the shutdown began, ODOT officials announced Thursday evening that they would pause the project for what was initially an undetermined period.
“We saw an increasing crisis in the Portland area,” said ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton. “This step that we took would help prevent congestion on the roads at a time when we needed the roads to be as clear as we could make them.”
The new start date of Sept. 19 is a delay of exactly one week – but ODOT cautioned that the new date could change again depending on conditions next week.
The project will replace a cracked trunnion and other components of the lift system on the northbound bridge, the older of the twin spans. The problem that arose this week – and the main reason for the two years of preparation – is that the operation requires the northbound span to be closed to all traffic for nine days.
ODOT plans to use the southbound span to carry both directions of traffic during the closure, but the idea of implementing a 50 percent capacity reduction on one of the only two Columbia River crossing points in the Portland area grew increasingly untenable as the evacuation areas widened this week.
By Thursday, tens of thousands of Oregonians were under full evacuation orders and hundreds of thousands more had been told to start preparing to evacuate if necessary. That’s when ODOT officials began to seriously discuss the possibility of postponing the project, Hamilton said.
“Things changed a lot yesterday,” he said Friday morning. “A week ago, 48 hours ago, this didn’t seem as serious as it did by Thursday.”
The $13 million project requires coordination from several stakeholders and has to be carefully planned and timed, Hamilton said, so postponement wasn’t a simple decision.
For starters, river traffic normally has priority. The bridge has to be ready to lift for all approaching vessels that request it, except during weekday rush hour periods. The trunnion project needed a permit from the U.S. Coast Guard to take the lift span offline during the work period.
ODOT spent years working with river vessel operators to plan their schedules around the Sept. 12-20 closure dates, and the agency and its Washington counterpart have spent the past several months warning local commuters to work from home or adjust their schedules to try to minimize congestion on I-5.
During the past couple weeks, crews worked to prepare the site by modifying the freeway median to allow traffic to transfer to the southbound span and building temporary falsework to support the lift span and counterweights, allowing them to be disconnected for the project.
And then there’s all the equipment – the crane, the barge, and the “zipper” machine that will be used twice a day to adjust a jersey barrier along the southbound span, allowing its central lane to function as a reversible rush hour lane. The machinery was all rented for the Sept. 12-20 time frame.
The good news is that the project hadn’t progressed past a point of no return. The lift span was already offline by Thursday, Hamilton said, and the falsework needed to be modified to allow it to resume operation, but that work was already underway Friday and expected to be wrapped up in a matter of hours.
ODOT notified the Coast Guard, project contractors and other stakeholders Thursday night before it publicly announced the delay, Hamilton said, but coming up with a new schedule was a longer conversation. That’s why the new start date wasn’t announced until Friday evening.
It was important to keep the delay short if possible, he said, because the project has a relatively narrow ideal work window. It was scheduled for September because that’s when the Columbia River is at its seasonal low point, allowing more river traffic to squeeze under the bridge’s central raised “hump” section without having to use the lift span.
Delaying too far into the fall season also means the project would risk running into weather problems, he said – particularly wind, which is the biggest concern for workers at the top of the bridge towers.
“This remains a critical project, and something that we should be doing as soon as we can,” Hamilton said.
The new schedule is an exact match to the previous schedule, just shifted back by one week. That means the project will officially begin at 12:01 a.m. Sept. 19. Northbound traffic will be gradually shifted over to the southbound bridge over the course of the night, one lane at a time.
The closure will continue until 11:59 p.m. Sept. 27. Starting immediately afterward, there will be a weeklong closure of the eastern lane on the southbound span, from Sept. 28 through Oct. 4, while crews wrap up the project.
With the clock reset by one week, Vancouver and Portland-area commuters should keep doing what they were already doing: preparing to work from home, take public transit or change up their schedules.
“This project needs to get done within the window of our Coast Guard permit and while the river level remains low,” Rian Windsheimer, ODOT manager for the Portland area, said in a statement Friday. “It’s time to get prepared for this closure and make a plan to avoid the expected congestion.”