Concerns Rise Over Oregon’s Bridges, Economy

A report on Oregon’s bridges does not bode well for the future.

📅   Thu October 29, 2015 - West Edition
Lori Tobias - CEG CORRESPONDENT


In lieu of replacing deficient bridges, the state tries to strengthen them. But out of the 900 expected to need work, funding will be available to repair only about 300.
In lieu of replacing deficient bridges, the state tries to strengthen them. But out of the 900 expected to need work, funding will be available to repair only about 300.
In lieu of replacing deficient bridges, the state tries to strengthen them. But out of the 900 expected to need work, funding will be available to repair only about 300. The reason bridges are in such good shape now is because of a special 10-year, $1.3 billion bonding program that gave the state $130 million a year for the past decade, allowing it to fix about 270 bridges over the span of the bonding program. ODOT is currently working with the state legislature to advise members of the potential economic effects and to look at options for raising transportation funding.

A report on Oregon’s bridges brought mostly good news for the current state of bridge conditions, but it does not bode well for the future — not for bridges or the state’s economy.

“We’re in pretty good shape right now, said Bruce Johnson, Oregon Department of Transportation bridge engineer. “But 40 to 50 percent of our bridges were built during the 1950s and ’60s and they are nearing the end of their design life. What that means is over the next 20 years, we’re going to have 900 bridges that need some major work.”

And the money isn’t there to fix them.

The reason bridges are in such good shape now is because of a special 10-year, $1.3 billion bonding program that gave the state $130 million a year for the past decade, allowing it to fix about 270 bridges over the span of the bonding program.

“Now we’re paying back those bonds,” Johnson said. “So, my bridge budget has been cut and because I am paying back those bonds and the federal government has not increased funding for infrastructure and the state is having trouble with funding infrastructure, it’s ’watch out guys, we’re in pretty good shape right now but in the next 20 years, bridge conditions are going to go down quickly.’ We’re on the top of a really fast downward slope. Even though we have a really robust program now, we’re just not going to be able to keep up.”

Johnson estimates that with the current projections, only two-thirds of the bridges in need of repair will not be fixed.

“My normal program would be around $85 million, but I’m paying $30 million to the bonds so I am down to $55 million,” Johnson said. “In the last 10 years, with $130 million from bonding program plus the $85 million in my budget, we have been spending more than $200 million a year on bridges. Now more bridges are going to need work and the funding is down to $55 million — less than a third from the bonding and regular program.”

Johnson described the report as a warning. While there are no closures now, there are 50 bridges on the restricted list. Most are not on major freight routes, he said.

But many of the bridges that are expected to be in need of replacement or repair in the next 20 years are interstate era bridges.

One such bridge is the Yaquina Bay Bridge, an iconic span on the coast in Newport designed by master builder Conde McCollough and opened to traffic in 1936. It is already restricted to the heaviest of haul freight loads.

“We don’t have a complete feasibility study for that bridge,” Johnson said. But costs to replace would vary depending on aesthetics, size and public requests. “I’ve heard it could cost between $400 million to potentially $600 million to replace. Of the major coastal bridges, Yaquina is on our radar that it would need to be fixed first.”

In lieu of replacing deficient bridges, the state tries to strengthen them. But out of the 900 expected to need work, funding will be available to repair only about 300, he said. That means more bridges will be restricted, resulting in a significant impact to the state’s economy.

“They have this big traffic model of state highways and they were able to put in these restrictions and back calculate the impact on our economy,” Johnson said. “Freight is not going to be able to move freely. Haulers are going to have to make more trips with less weight. That is going to be more expensive and the result is that costs are going to go up. Businesses are going to relocate because can’t efficiently haul produce. We’ll lose business and our economy is going to suffer and we are going to lose jobs. The economic study predicted over 20 years, 100,000 jobs will be lost and there will be a $94 billion reduction of our gross state product. On the other hand, if we fix the bridges, the assumption is you would not lose 100,000 jobs or lose the $94 million in gross state product.”

ODOT is currently working with the state legislature to advise members of the potential economic effects and to look at options for raising transportation funding.

“We’ve developed all kinds of reports,” Johnson said. “We did an economic study for them so they could see the impact on the economy. We are providing information to the legislature and leaving it up to them to make a direct proposal for transportation increase. Some of the possibilities I’ve heard are a combination of license fees, raising the truck weight/mile fees, and a small tax increase at the pump.”