Bridge support: HR Port officials advocate in D.C. for expanded funding

REP. GREG WALDEN meets with Port of Hood River Commission President Brian Shortt in Washington, D.C., discussing a transportation funding bill the port hopes legislators will amend to include bridges within National Scenic Areas, including the Hood River Bridge.

Port of Hood River leaders took to Washington D.C. this week, advocating for legislators to put bridges of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area on the federal funding map.

Port Commission President Brian Shortt and Executive Director Michael McElwee made the journey Wednesday and returned Thursday night. The purpose was to advocate modifying a U.S. House transportation bill in order to make bridges within National Scenic Areas — including the Hood River Bridge and the Bridge of the Gods — eligible for nationwide freight and infrastructure programs.

“It’s vitally important for these communities in the Gorge to know that there’s a path to secure — down the road — transportation funding for an implementation plan in the Gorge, for upgrades to the Cascade Locks Bridge and replacement of the Hood River Bridge,” McElwee said.

The port has been working with Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River), with support from several Oregon and Washington legislators, including Rep. Peter DeFazio and Rep. Jaime Herrera-Buetler, respectively, on the proposed changes to the reauthorization bill, which was released last Friday and then marked up and passed by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Thursday.

The bill, “House Surface Transportation Reauthorization and Reform Act of 2015,” lays out transportation projects across the nation in a 543-page spread. The port hopes to modify a single line to include scenic area bridges.

Despite the port’s efforts, McElwee said Thursday the Scenic Area language wasn’t included in the draft stage of the bill. However, legislators in favor the modifications will push for its inclusion when it moves to the House floor in November. McElwee anticipates Walden will request a floor amendment of the language when the bill comes back.

Paul Koch, Port of Cascade Locks general manager, said the Cascade Locks port was supporting the Hood River port’s advocacy efforts, the goal of which would be inclusion in future federal programs.

“We would have a chance to reach into that pot of money,” Koch said.

Hood River County’s two Columbia River bridges will need serious attention in the coming decades, according to port officials.

“The reality is that transportation, like a lot of things, is vastly underfunded,” said McElwee. “We are a small bridge in a large country but it’s vital that this bridge stays open.”

The price tag for replacing the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge would be an estimated $280 million. McElwee said the timeline for a full swap out is hard to estimate, dependent on intensity of use, maintenance funding and “most importantly, no earthquake or barge strikes.”

An unknown vessel struck the north pier of the bridge earlier this month, prompting an investigation of cause and damages by the port and U.S. Coast Guard this week (see A1 story). However, the main focus is the bridge’s lift span, not the support structure — vehicular traffic remains open on the bridge.

The Bridge of the Gods will require $10 million over the next decade in maintenance, Koch said. Most of the cost will be deck, plate and spot repairs, but tolling software will also pose a challenge. The port is upgrading to an automated system, similar to the Port of Hood River’s “Breezeby” technology.

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