Public Planning

Multiple bridges on the Columbia River are vulnerable to ship strike, New York Times story notes

For the open­ing of our sto­ry here on The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate about the col­lapse of the Fran­cis Scott Key Bridge in Bal­ti­more last week, I sug­gest­ed that read­ers con­tem­plate what would hap­pen if there were a sim­i­lar dis­as­ter on the mar­itime bor­der between Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon, writ­ing: “Imag­ine if one of the vital­ly impor­tant bridges link­ing Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon was hit by a big car­go ship and fell into the Colum­bia Riv­er. That is what hap­pened last night in Bal­ti­more, where a dis­abled ship slammed into the sup­port struc­ture of the Fran­cis Scott Key Bridge, caus­ing a total col­lapse of its main sec­tion and block­ing marine traf­fic to and from the Port of Baltimore.”

Today, in a sto­ry for The New York Times, reporters Mike Bak­er, Anjali Singhvi, Hel­muth Ros­ales, David W. Chen and Ele­na Shao took a look at a dozen bridges around the coun­try that infra­struc­ture experts believe are just as vul­ner­a­ble to ship strike as the Fran­cis Scott Key Bridge was when the giant con­tain­er ship Dali hit it.

The bridge they chose to focus on in the open­ing para­graphs of their sto­ry was none oth­er than our very own Lewis and Clark Bridge:

The Lewis and Clark Bridge has tow­ered above the Colum­bia Riv­er for near­ly a cen­tu­ry, its rugged half-mile truss serv­ing as a gate­way for log­ging trucks and beach vaca­tion­ers cross­ing between Wash­ing­ton and Oregon.

Decades ago, to pro­tect against way­ward ves­sels that could threat­en the struc­ture, crews installed tim­ber shields around the bridge piers that rise up out of the water. But even as the car­go ships chug­ging up the Pacif­ic Northwest’s largest riv­er began to grow in size, the tim­bers rot­ted away, leav­ing the bridge vul­ner­a­ble to disaster.

“If a ship hits one of those piers, it’s gone,” said Jer­ry Reagor, a semi­re­tired con­trac­tor who lives near the bridge and has spent years press­ing trans­porta­tion offi­cials to install new pro­tec­tions. The state views the risk of calami­ty as low and the cost of pre­vent­ing it to be high.

Bridges across the coun­try car­ry sim­i­lar defi­cien­cies. At 309 major bridges on nav­i­ga­ble water­ways in the Unit­ed States, inspec­tions in recent years have found pro­tec­tion sys­tems around bridge foun­da­tions that were dete­ri­o­rat­ing, poten­tial­ly out­dat­ed or nonex­is­tent, leav­ing the struc­tures per­ilous­ly exposed to ship strikes.

Con­struct­ed in the 1920s, the Lewis and Clark Bridge was once pri­vate­ly owned. It links Longview in Cowlitz Coun­ty, Wash­ing­ton with Rainier, Ore­gon. (On clear days, Rainier has a view of Mount Rainier in Wash­ing­ton; hence the name.) 

It is a can­tilever bridge, designed by Joseph Strauss, who is bet­ter known for hav­ing been the chief engi­neer of San Fran­cis­co’s Gold­en Gate Bridge, which is pos­si­bly the most famous bridge in the world. It is 830 meters long (2,722 feet) and has 64 meters (210 feet) of ver­ti­cal clear­ance. It was built by J. H. Pomeroy & Co. and has been on the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places since 1982.

The bridge came into pub­lic own­er­ship in 1947, when the State of Wash­ing­ton bought it. Tolls were elim­i­nat­ed in 1965 after the cost of con­struct­ing the bridge, $5.8 mil­lion, had been recouped. Tolls were ini­tial­ly a dol­lar for auto­mo­biles and ten cents for pedes­tri­ans, equiv­a­lent to around $14.52 and $1.45 in 2023 dollars. 

Twen­ty years ago, the bridge deck was replaced at a cost of $29.2 mil­lion, a lit­tle less than half of what it cost to build the bridge in 2003 dol­lars. (The orig­i­nal con­struc­tion cost, $5.8 mil­lion, works out to $62.18 mil­lion in 2003 dol­lars, and over $84 mil­lion in 2023 dol­lars.) How­ev­er, the State of Wash­ing­ton has yet to install new shields to pro­tect the bridge piers, as not­ed above in the lede to the NYT story.

The Lewis and Clark Bridge isn’t the only aging bridge strad­dling the Colum­bia Riv­er. Down­stream, near the riv­er mouth, there is the Astoria–Megler Bridge, which opened in 1966, and upstream, there is Burling­ton North­ern Rail­road Bridge 9.6, which opened all the way back in 1908. Then there is the bet­ter-known pair of Inter­state Bridges, car­ry­ing I‑5, which were built in 1917 and 1958. All lack suf­fi­cient shield­ing to pro­tect against threats posed from big ships like the Dali. 

WSDOT would need a sig­nif­i­cant amount of mon­ey to put up shields on the Lewis & Clark Bridge, the agency told the NYT: 

Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion offi­cials in Wash­ing­ton State have said they will be watch­ing the Bal­ti­more inves­ti­ga­tion to deter­mine whether new pier pro­tec­tions on the Lewis and Clark Bridge might be need­ed but cau­tioned that the state has lim­it­ed funds.

“This would be an improve­ment project that would cost tens of mil­lions of dol­lars,” said Kel­ly Hana­han, a depart­ment spokeswoman.

The Asto­ria-Megler Bridge down­stream has shields, and they are in work­ing order, but they are not big or stur­dy enough to pro­tect the bridge from some­thing as big as the Dali. The NYT chose to close the sto­ry by dis­cussing the Asto­ria-Megler Bridge: 

Back in the Pacif­ic North­west, far­ther down the Colum­bia Riv­er, the Asto­ria-Megler Bridge has shields in place to deflect ships away from the piers, and inspec­tors have found them to be func­tion­ing. But ves­sel sizes have increased in recent years, state offi­cials acknowledged.

Capt. Jere­my Nielsen, pres­i­dent of the Colum­bia Riv­er Pilots, whose mariners are hired to guide ships through the some­times treach­er­ous waters of the low­er Colum­bia and Willamette Rivers, said he has con­cern over both bridges, giv­en that ships can and do break down on the river.

The shields on the Asto­ria-Megler Bridge are capa­ble of deflect­ing small­er ships nav­i­gat­ing the riv­er, he said. “The struc­ture that’s there is not going to pro­tect against a larg­er vessel.”

How much will it cost to pro­vide suf­fi­cient pro­tec­tion to all the vul­ner­a­ble bridges in the Pacif­ic North­west? Prob­a­bly hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars. But, as the say­ing goes, an ounce of pre­ven­tion is worth a pound of cure.

If we lose one of our key bridges, the costs could rise into the bil­lions, as they’re expect­ed to in Bal­ti­more. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment and the states of Wash­ing­ton, Ore­gon, and Ida­ho need to work togeth­er to fig­ure out how to pay for and con­struct the shield­ing that is need­ed to safe­guard our vital crossings. 

Andrew Villeneuve

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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