As of October 21st, the Bridge of the Gods (owned and operated by the Port of Cascade Locks), has returned to full legal load limits, allowing freight to flow freely once again between I-84 on the Oregon side and Hwy 14 on the Washington side. This announcement comes a full ten days ahead of schedule, easing the burden to business owners, motor carriers, and the local tour bus industry, all of which have had to use alternate routes since the project started on September 27th.
It was in May of this year that the Port of Cascade Locks (POCL), the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and a Local Bridge Committee comprised of citizens and elected officials from Stevenson and Cascade Locks began discussions of a retrofit project to strengthen the spans on the Oregon approach. Privately owned bridges like the Bridge of the Gods are considered by the state and federal government to be “off the system”, meaning the interagency mechanisms that support public infrastructure are not present to mobilize a multi-agency response. It requires a great deal more strategizing and coordinating by the bridge owner to bring all these agencies together to work as a cohesive team. The POCL has been helping nationally define the role of a private bridge owner since it took ownership 60 years ago.
The Bridge of the Gods was first constructed in 1926 as a vital transportation link between Oregon and Washington States, making it possible for the Columbia River Gorge area to become a bistate economic region. In 1961 the Bridge was purchased by the POCL with the intent to operate and maintain the Bridge to support local economic development within the Port’s district. For 94 years the Bridge has served the Columbia River Gorge communities and the greater bistate region, by providing safe and reliable transportation.
In 2006, the Port signed an Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) with ODOT. The IGA calls for ODOT to do regular bridge inspections, then file a report with the Port to help guide the work that needs to be done.
In 2013, after a routine inspection noted the need to replace several stringers and gusset plates on the bridge, ODOT issued weight restrictions for the Bridge of the Gods that reduced capacity to 8 tons. Anyone living in the area at that time remembers being caught off guard by the news with little to no notice. The realization of the economic impact it would have on the communities from both sides of the river set in very quickly. The bridge construction was initially estimated to take two years and cost $4 million. The Port Commission requested that governors of both states declare a state of [economic] emergency. The Port Commission’s regional leadership and ODOT identified unallocated dollars in 2016-18 transportation funds, and successfully fast-tracked the project. Completed on December 23, 2013, the six-month project cost $1.2 million.
Although the repairs were ultimately completed, the POCL saw much room for improvement. Commission President Jess Groves and staff immediately went to work, eager to respond to the lessons learned. One of the first steps was working with outside engineers to create a comprehensive 15-year maintenance plan that clearly laid out a maintenance schedule as well as larger repairs and retrofits that would be needed in the future. POCL and ODOT also began working to develop and improve open channels of communication to support the IGA and respond to the findings of the biannual inspections. This commitment to collaboration and cooperation is meant to ensure smoother, faster, and more transparent responses to issues when they are identified. The Port itself also contracts with an outside engineering firm to consult on how to best handle these findings and how they fit within the continually updated 15-year maintenance plan. This most recent strengthening project highlights just how much improvement has been made since 2013.
In 2015, the federal legislation Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act was signed into law. The FAST Act increased allowable weight limits for emergency vehicles on the Interstate system and within one-mile access to and from the Interstate. Following the FAST Act, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued guidance and timelines for states to evaluate and if necessary, restrict bridges for heavy EVs. In May 2021, an updated load rating was completed in the summer of 2021 by David Evans Associates, Inc. (DEA).
The Bridge the Gods EV inspections were scheduled by ODOT to be completed in September of 2021. These inspections take place over five days, with inspectors physically out on the bridge inspecting all members at arm’s length. Once the data has been collected, an additional four to six months are needed to complete engineering calculations and for ODOT to review those calculations. In preparation for EV Inspection, ODOT conducted additional analysis of previous inspections from 2013, 2015, 2017, and 2019. Taking a proactive approach, a special inspection was conducted in May to assess the observation of non-composite movement on the Oregon approach and its potential to negatively influence the EV Load Rating. Before analysis of the special inspection was completed, ODOT Engineering teams began reaching out with potential scenarios the yet uncalculated data may reveal and its impact to the bridges EV ratings. ODOT suggested possible solutions and recommended known engineering firms that had the experience and capabilities to strengthen those spans to support of heavier EV2 vehicles. This early and proactive communication allowed for swift and decisive action to occur regarding design, fabrication, procurement, and installation.
This prompt action also created a window of time to inform and involve the public from both sides of the river about the strengthening project, its costs, its timeline, and how it would impact our communities. This was another lesson learned from 2013. The Port would need to work together with both sides of the river to communicate the messaging of what the Bridge needed and the best way to get it. Within weeks of the issues being identified, the Port formed a new Bridge of The Gods Subcommittee, comprised of members of the public and elected officials from both sides of the river, to discuss the Bridge of the Gods. The first meeting lasted 2.5 hours and focused not only on the repair but also on the needs of a bike-pedestrian path, tolling, freight, traffic, and the long-term vision for a rehabilitation or replacement of the Bridge.
The Strengthening Project began on September 27th, marking four full months of since initial public notice. The Bridge was restricted to 11 tons during the repair but remained open to most light vehicles. The Bridge Subcommittee members met weekly with the contractor and ODOT representatives throughout the project. The Strengthening Project was completed early and slightly under budget with no lane or bridge closures. The EV Inspections were completed two weeks later, and the Port is awaiting on the analysis of that data.
The Bridge of the Gods is now 94 years old. The design and efficiency, with which it was built, has played a significant role in its ability to remain a safe and viable link between the two states. The Gorge continues to grow in residents as well as seasonal visitors. This growth and popularity both tax the physical structure and provide a very desirable spotlight on our infrastructure needs. The Bridge will continue to require maintenance and inspections throughout its path towards full rehabilitation or replacement. Lines of communication from both states, the Bridge Subcommittee, ODOT, WSDOT, the FHWA are in place and will need to remain strong throughout the life of the bridge to ensure our local businesses and citizens always have this historical and vital economic link.