Residents’ fears continue to swell as the strength of their community’s connecting bridge becomes faultier by the day.
The infrastructure was built in the early 20th century, and its creaking, moaning bones could easily drop into the Columbia River in an earthquake – upending the lives of those nearby and local economies.
After decades of discussions, a bridge replacement finally seems attainable, but the reality is made more difficult with its hefty price tag. It may sound like a familiar story, but it’s a lot farther inland than the Interstate 5 Bridge.
The White Salmon and Hood River Bridge, built in 1924, has a weakening structure that is susceptible to heavy weight loads and trembles under traffic. Its two narrow lanes create a claustrophobic feeling for commuters and makes the likelihood of a bottleneck effect greater — something that occurs after a minor vehicular accident or poor weather.
Anxieties surrounding the safety of the White Salmon and Hood River Bridge have lingered for years. But recent maintenance closures provided a glimpse of what the absence of the bridge would mean to neighboring areas and industries — swelling previous concerns.
The passage’s estimated $500 million replacement is meager compared to the I-5 Bridge’s $3.2 to $4.8 billion expense. Yet some community leaders outline the parallels between the narrow draw bridge and its urban neighbor down river, such as its outdated skeleton and crucial role for the region’s residents and economy.
“For us, the urgency is just as strong as those (who) are in Vancouver or Portland,” White Salmon Mayor Marla Keethler said.
Without the passageway, there is a 50-mile gap to cross the Columbia River — the closest crossings are an equal distance apart , west in Cascade Locks or east in The Dalles.
White Salmon and Hood River community pages online are filled with personal anecdotes touching on how each community is intertwined in functionality. A typical 10-minute car ride could take an hour, posing challenges for those who work, depend on child care, or receive medical support on the other side of the river, Keethler said. Others may have family in the adjacent town who wouldn’t be easily accessible.
“This bridge is a critical connection point for a lot of those things that are already fragile,” she said.
Why should outsiders care?
The White Salmon and Hood River Bridge is functionally obsolete, said Jacob Anderson, Klickitat County chair, posing risks to accessible trade routes.
Those who live outside of the Gorge may not be aware of the bridge’s influence unless they are visiting for recreational purposes and are unnerved by its shakiness.
“The Gorge is a playground for everyone else,” he said.
Trucks hauling fruit from local packing plants or wood products can’t pass the crossing, which is owned by the port of Hood River, because of recently implemented weight restrictions. Speed limits were reduced to 15 mph to limit bridge impacts and prolong the span’s lifespan. Gashes in concrete pillars tell the tales of boats carrying wheat, soy and other bulk products having difficulty threading through the structure’s 246-foot lift span.
Unlike the I-5 Bridge, the reality of the White Salmon and Hood River Bridge replacement may unfold quicker due to the ease of the states’ collaboration.
Kevin Greenwood, Port of Hood River replacement project director, said a contract for the bridge’s design is anticipated to go out for bid soon, and all the required impact studies will be finished by the end of the year. Now, it’s a matter of acquiring the necessary funding.
Washington representatives secured $75 million for the replacement during the 2022 legislative session, slowly closing the gap for its overall costs. Local municipalities and agencies will continue to apply for nearly $200 million in federal grants to obtain funding, as well as journey to Washington D.C. to speak with lobbyists.
“I think it’s highly unusual that you now have counties, cities and port districts from both sides of the river walking in unison (and) speaking with a common voice advocating for this effort,” Greenwood said. “I think it really is unusual and something to be applauded for in this region.”