Age Turns Bridgetown Into Bridge-Repair Town

Thu August 09, 2012 - West Edition

The Sellwood Bridge is set to be replaced.
The Sellwood Bridge is set to be replaced.

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) Multnomah County commuters can be forgiven if they are suffering from a lingering case of bridge-repair fatigue.

Needed repairs closed the Morrison Bridge for nearly a year recently, and streetcar work shut the Broadway Bridge before that. Construction of a new Sellwood Bridge, meanwhile, is slowing what was already a sloggy commute across the busiest two-lane bridge in the state.

Well, for anyone thinking their daily game of bridge bingo is about over, there’s bad news.

“The four oldest bridges are all about 100 years old,” said county spokesman Mike Pullen. “People need to expect there will be ongoing work on all of those structures for years to come.”

First up is an end-to-end analysis of the 86-year-old Burnside Bridge. A consultant’s report, expected in the spring, will break the work into phases to be tackled in the coming decade. Then, in 2014, crews will replace lift-span parts on both the Broadway and Morrison bridges.

There’s more. The roughly 30 percent of the Broadway Bridge not painted eight years ago is scheduled for that work in 2015.

And assuming nothing else breaks or simply wears out on other county-owned spans, engineers have identified seismic retrofits to the Broadway, Burnside, Morrison and Hawthorne bridges.

Deborah Kafoury, the county commissioner who has assumed something of a lead role in overseeing bridges, said she is confident county residents will remain patient through the coming years of the anticipated slowdowns needed to complete the work.

“One thing I have found in my career is that we are a community that values our bridges,” she said. “You can’t help but love them.”

Complaints do pour in when closures are required, Kafoury said. During the Morrison’s extended shutdown, for instance, the gripes never seemed to stop.

“My husband used to take it to work,” she said, “and he would complain about it every day.”

If bridge closures are frightful for commuters, the prospect of paying for needed repairs amounts to a financial nightmare.

Money to operate the bridges and do planning and engineering work required to map maintenance blueprints comes largely from the county’s share of the state highway fund and gas-tax receipts. Together, those will generate about $5.2 million this year.

That amount, while not insignificant, is nowhere near the $506 million county engineers estimate they will need for bridge upgrades during the next 20 years. The seismic retrofits alone are expected to total at least $75 million.

Making matters even more daunting is that financing, for the most part, hasn’t been secured. The county, beyond the unenviable task of trying to tap rapidly shrinking pools of federal money, faces the possibilities of measures such as creating a regional bridge authority to wrestle with funding.

“We anticipate that the region in the future will need all of the bridges we have now and perhaps more,” Pullen said. “We also realize that paying for all that upkeep is going to be a challenge.”

Equally as certain is that an endless series of bridge projects will continue to create traffic-snarling delays.

“Any time they do anything on the bridges, it affects traffic,” said Sharon Wood Wortman, a Portland resident who has written a book on the area’s spans. “People slow down and gawk. It’s just the way it is.”

Her advice to frustrated commuters is to be as patient with bridge repairs as they are with aging relatives.

“They are always in need of new joints, of constant rehabbing,” Wood Wortman said. “When it comes to bridges, you are never done.”

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