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Oregon: Bridges Better, Funding Needed

Thursday, October 1, 2015

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Oregon’s Department of Transportation has released a mixed report about the state of its bridges, but the agency’s report indicates it needs money to prevent both an economic downfall and a catastrophic loss in the event of a major earthquake.

ODOT released its 2015 Bridge Condition Report on Sept. 17. The report indicates that if the state’s bridges are not adequately maintained, Oregon could forfeit $94 billion in production and 100,000 jobs.

By the Numbers

A statement released with the report outlined the reason why: Of the more than 2,700 bridges in the state highway system, more than half were built in the 1950s and 1960s. That puts the ages of those bridges between 50 and 65 years old.

“If these bridges were people, we’d be throwing retirement parties for them,” said Bruce Johnson, an ODOT engineer, in the statement. “Instead, we’re asking them to carry more traffic at higher speeds and heavier weights.”

An ODOT inspection crew looks at the Marquam Bridge that crosses the Willamette River in Portland, which ODOT officials say is one of the busiest bridges in the state.

In a related story by the National Public Radio, the news agency reported Sept. 24 that the numbers released in the report also indicate cause for concern if the region would be shaken by a major earthquake.

Of the 1,232 bridges that ODOT identified as “lifeline” routes—those critical to emergency services after a disaster—713 are considered seismically vulnerable. The NPR report notes that bridges built in Oregon prior to 1970 have no seismic design at all.

Oregon did not start designing for earthquakes with a magnitude of 8 or 9 until the mid-1990s, the NPR report states. Meanwhile, the state faces 1-in-3 odds that it will have a quake of that magnitude in the next 50 years.

Signs of Improvement

But as Equipment World magazine notes, Oregon’s overall bridge picture actually is improving. Through this year, 79 percent of Oregon’s bridges on state highways, 86 percent on Interstate highways and 79 percent on the National Highway System are not considered distressed, the magazine said.

ODOT said in its statement that only two in eight state highway bridges show signs of wear and tear that would call for significant repairs or replacement. The agency credits that on funding initiatives started about 12 years ago.

The Oregon Transportation Investment Act (OTIA III) State Bridge Delivery Program repaired or replaced 122 bridges in the state highway’s system from 2003 through 2014, Equipment World said.

ODOT / CC BY 2.0 via Flikr

The Dalles Bridge, which carries U.S. 197 over the Columbia River, opened in 1954 and is need of repairs. More than half of Oregon's state-owned bridges are between 50 and 65 years old.

Still, ODOT said that was a temporary “catch up” program, and the state needs more funding to keep up that trend.

“Without the funding to proactively address bridge needs to prevent problems before they occur, we are forced to react to problems after they occur,” said ODOT director Matthew Garrett in the agency’s statement.

“Patching holes in decks and making emergency fixes to bridges is not a strategic use of taxpayer money, and is very inconvenient to all travelers.”

The agency notes that the state must replace 27 bridges a year to keep up with a 100-year bridge cycle. Current funding allows ODOT to replace just three bridges in a year. Bridges also should receive major maintenance every 30 to 50 years, but the state funding only allows them to do it once every 100 years.

As Equipment World notes, 57 percent of Oregon’s state-owned bridges would be at the end of their lifespan by 2020. Of those, ODOT has said that about 18 percent of those already are “one point away from structural deficiency.”


The agency notes that the state must replace 27 bridges a year to keep up with a 100-year bridge cycle. Current funding allows ODOT to replace just three bridges in a year.

About 14 bridges fall into the structurally deficient category a year right now. By 2020, about 70 bridges per year would become structurally deficient.

“At the current rate of replacement—about 0.1 percent per year—state highway bridges will have to last more than 900 years on average,” ODOT said in its report.

Legislation Ahead

Transportation has been a defining topic of Oregon’s 2015 Legislative session, according to the daily newspaper in Salem, OR.

State Senate President Peter Courtney told the Statesman Journal that a meaningful transportation bill would need to be part of the 2017 session. Others criticized that statement, saying the votes were available to pass a bill in the 2016 session, which has not started yet.

Even so, Courtney told the daily newspaper that a transportation bill would have to be somewhere on the horizon.

“If you want to be in the Legislature; if you want to be governor; if you want to be secretary of state or treasurer; you need to be committed to passing a major transportation plan,” he said. “Everyone needs to know what they are signing up for. Transportation funding will be the defining issue of the 2017 session.”


Tagged categories: Bridges; Bridges; Federal Highway Administration (FHWA); Government; Government contracts; Roads/Highways

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