As Greg Johnson stood atop a green scaffolding tower of the Interstate 5 Bridge on an overcast autumn afternoon, he leaned on a rail and looked at the water that separates Oregon and Washington.
Johnson has driven the bridge’s narrow lanes, walked its shaking sidewalks and visited the constantly shuddering control and cable rooms as the cars and trucks whiz from one state to another. But in his 2½ years in the program, Johnson had never climbed the 280 steps to its top.
It was his “first and last time,” he said to The Columbian on a tour to the bridge’s top.
Johnson is tasked with one of the most challenging jobs in the region’s history: leading the charge to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge — the only point where a stoplight can stop I-5 traffic.
In more than a decade, if Johnson’s plan succeeds, there will be nothing but open air and the frigid Columbia River below the point he stood, and a new, safer, more manageable bridge just yards upstream ushering traffic between the states.
What might seem like an engineering challenge for Johnson is, in reality, a political one. The tours of the bridge are becoming more frequent as the bridge program gains speed. Johnson and the Interstate Bridge Replacement have been taking lawmakers and stakeholders, including city and county officials, to show them the cost, fragility and other issues with the bridge.
With eight different partner agencies, two states, the federal government, the needs of river users and numerous interest groups, many with competing visions of what a replacement bridge should look like, finding consensus is a geopolitical conundrum.
The list of engineers qualified to head up an interstate bridge replacement is small. The list of qualified engineers with the skills to solve this political riddle is even smaller.
Johnson, 62, the program administrator of the I-5 Bridge replacement, has had a lifetime of experience in the transportation industry, even since his earliest years as a child being forced to move because of road projects. Working mostly in Michigan, he has experience on another megaproject, and he also has consultant experience.
“It’s a very rare thing in our industry to see somebody with that kind of engineering smarts and also be a people person,” said Paul Ajegba, director of the Michigan Department of Transportation and former co-worker. “He’s about finding compromise and common ground.”
As Johnson stood atop the towers of the Interstate 5 Bridge that swayed from the traffic whizzing underneath, he looked down on Oregon and Washington: two states that will need to cooperate with him in order to bring them together with a new bridge.
Johnson’s parents met in Michigan after they migrated from the South in search of better jobs and because of the racial animosity. His father was from Mayesville, S.C., and his mother from Tuskegee, Ala. His family eventually settled in New Haven, Mich., a rural town called home by roughly 1,000 people in the ’60s, 18 miles from Detroit.
Before first grade, the Michigan Department of Transportation forced his family to move three times in a year so a highway could be built on the homes’ land.
Johnson thought the moves were fun — a new home every few months — but his siblings struggled with it. Two of his five siblings were held back a grade.
Although Johnson’s father, who never made it past the ninth grade, hoped all of his children would go to college, Johnson was the first.
“At the time, you could walk out of high school and go to the auto plants which were plentiful back then and make a great middle-class living,” said Johnson. “(My father) said, ‘I don’t want that for you. I want you to go to college, use your head instead of your hands.’ I always took that to heart.”
A strong high school student and athlete, he earned an athletic scholarship on the University of Michigan’s track and field team for shot put. Johnson dreamed of designing skyscrapers in New York City post-college, but when he graduated into a recession in December 1982, reality quickly came crashing down.
Inside the bridge
Those who drive across the I-5 Bridge regularly will notice a few roomlike structures on the bridge: the control room between the two spans above the bank of the Columbia on the Washington side and the two cable rooms that sit above the roadway on the two spans.
Johnson stood in the control room that constantly shakes and sways. It’s equipped with contemporary technology replaced every 10 years, and it feels modern, especially when compared to the bridge’s aged exterior.
For what used to be a three-person job, operating the bridge is done by one person at a time at any hour, but requires 10 employees. The cable rooms are old. They bounce, shake and reek from the recent greasing of more than 6 miles of cables — an annual process that takes two nights and costs roughly $40,000 for the grease alone.
The cost to run and maintain the bridge annually is about $1 million, according to Marc Gross, Interstate 5 Bridge supervisor and the tour guide.
The bridge lifts roughly 350 times a year: half for maintenance and half for river users. Seeing the inside of the bridge up close always impresses Johnson.
“It’s an old bridge, but boy, for its age, it is in tremendous shape,” Johnson said.
After graduating into a recession, Johnson applied to many jobs but with little luck. Eventually he settled for one in Elkins, W.Va., but two weeks before the move, the city of Battle Creek, Mich., called him back for a second interview and offered him a job.
Johnson’s first job let him do a bit of everything, including transportation work, allowing him to learn the industry. He would often collaborate with Michigan Department of Transportation employees, and, after becoming friendly with many of them, they eventually recruited him.
Johnson’s first boss, Construction Engineer Lee Kinney, was one of the most impactful people in his life. Kinney took Johnson under his wing and mentored him, teaching him about the politics of transportation — the skill that is most critical to Johnson’s current, mostly political, job.
Kinney conducted Johnson’s final MDOT interview.
“He told me later (that) you just had that certain spark, that get it done attitude that he took an interest in and said that needs to be nourished,” Johnson said. “He was always encouraging. He never looked and said ‘you’re African American, you can’t do this or you’re young, you can’t do that.’ ”
At MDOT, some of the tasks were less than exciting.
One winter, Kinney assigned Johnson to traffic and safety in Kalamazoo. One of his tasks was meeting with the parents of children that had recently died. The parents would want change, and Johnson was responsible for listening to them.
“You had to learn how to say no to people when your heart and every fiber in your body wanted to say yes,” Johnson said. “Because if you put a signal there, it would make that intersection even more dangerous.”
Reflecting back, years later, the experience proved invaluable for him as someone who primarily worked in construction and design.
“It gave me empathy,” he said.
Kirk Steudle, the former director of MDOT, who worked closely with Johnson, observed that Johnson picked up on Kinney’s open-mindedness, communication skills and ability to put himself in others’ shoes.
“(Kinney) was very well respected for, frankly, a lot of the same things that we’re talking about with Greg. He had a very open mind, very much understood that there’s two sides of the problem and was a great communicator,” Steudle said.
Johnson got his first chance to work on a megaproject: the Gordie Howe Bridge, connecting Michigan to Ontario, Canada. Discussions about a bridge had been percolating since the early ’90s, but nothing ever got off the ground.
The experience underscored to Johnson that big, important projects take determination to get done.
But as Gordie Howe was getting off the ground, Johnson decided it was time for a change.
He had worked at MDOT for 26½ years and was going through a personal period of flux; his wife had left and his dad had died. He wanted to do something different and retired.
To the top
The steep, crisscrossing stairs to the top of the I-5 Bridge are narrow and, like the cable and control rooms, vibrate because of the traffic.
Johnson marches up the first few of the 280 steps, following Gross. Johnson keeps a good pace, but as the climb continues, the distance between Gross and Johnson, along with the rest of the tour, widens. The higher above the interstate he gets, the more the tired inhales and exhales of the group drown out the thousands of vehicles passing underneath.
Everyone climbing the steps adjusts to the vibrations after a while, but when an especially heavy truck passes underneath, the guard rails and steps shake and the group instinctively holds on tighter.
While climbing up the stairs, Johnson said he wishes he could be joined on a tour by some of the biggest critics of the bridge who think that retrofitting it is a good idea.
“It’s shocking how one truck will go by and it’ll move a little bit and a heavily loaded truck will go by and it will move a lot,” Johnson said the week after. “That differential is always interesting.”
From Michigan to Oregon
Johnson didn’t stay retired for long. Within a year he was in Baltimore running the Maryland State Highway Association, where he worked for a year and a half before his mom got sick. He’d still be in Maryland if that didn’t happen, but when he heard about her health, he went home to be close to her, and he retired for a second time.
Johnson got a call from the consulting firm WSP a few months into his second retirement. They wanted Johnson to run their Michigan operations and said he could be home every weekend. Johnson accepted the job. At the time, WSP was ranked ninth out of the consultants to win bids with MDOT.
“(It helped) inform me of how to treat consultants, how to manage consultants and optimize work products that come out of the consultants that we have working here,” he said.
With Johnson’s leadership, WSP became the No. 1 firm to earn jobs from the MDOT. Johnson was promoted to vice president of national construction services after a year.
In 2020, in the heart of the pandemic, Johnson got a call from a “headhunter” attempting to recruit him to apply for the program administrator job for the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement.
“Good for them,” Johnson said, uninterested in leaving his role at WSP.
Johnson, largely unfamiliar with the region, was aware that the Columbia River Crossing failed when it made national headlines in 2013. Why wouldn’t Oregon and Washington want to replace a 90-year-old bridge? he thought.
The recruiter convinced him to at least apply, and after a series of reluctant interviews, Johnson got hooked on the complexities and circumstances surrounding the project. By mid-June, he had been hired for the job and by mid-July he was driving to Oregon.
By that point, his mom had died and Johnson thought it was the right opportunity at the right point in his life: the kids gone, and the house empty. It was his time to “have an adventure,” he said.
“I don’t know if it’s tragedy in my life drives me from point to point, but it was just a wicked coincidence that my mom died and then this guy calls me out of the blue and says, ‘Come to Oregon. Come see this big project,’ ” he said.
Johnson had never been to Oregon a day in his life, but quickly learned about the history of the region, from the Vanport Flood to the racial inequities the state was built on.
The view from atop the bridge is unlike any other in the region. At roughly 23 stories — taller than any occupied building in Vancouver — Johnson can spot downtown Portland, the Fremont Bridge, St. Johns Bridge and all of downtown Vancouver. He can also imagine where a new bridge will go.
Johnson knows firsthand the negative impact departments of transportation can have and of the region’s fraught history between them and minority communities.
“If I lived next to this freeway, I’d want somebody to talk to me and tell me what’s going on and I’d want them not to do it in a condescending super technical way,” Johnson said. “I’d want them to sit down and talk to me like I was their next-door neighbor.”
Johnson said he will listen, he will talk with his biggest critics and he will compromise, but he will not succumb to endless deliberation. He is a consensus builder and, even if it annoys the partners, he will continue to push the project forward.
“Wherever he’s gone, he’s succeeded,” said Ed Tatem, vice president for WSP USA, who worked closely with Johnson while they were both at MDOT. “If you let him do his magic, it’ll be a success.”
Johnson took one last look and descended the stairs.
He thanked Gross at the bottom, telling him and the tour group that he always learns something new each time he takes it, and exchanged small talk with those remaining, before strolling back to the IBR office.
“You want somebody who’s passionate about this stuff leading a program like this,” Johnson said. “You don’t want somebody who’s just in it for a paycheck or whatever. My thing is, I’m passionate about getting it right.”
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.