Massive bridge renovation project now expected to stretch into 2021

The roadway of Astoria-Megler Bridge descends into a fog bank as a blue sky peeks out from above.

This is the first story in what will be an ongoing series about the Astoria-Megler Bridge, which is undergoing lengthy renovations as it nears its 50th birthday. Look for more stories about the bridge and the work being done on it in future issues of the Chinook Observer.

One night in August 1966, before governors, mayors and other so-called important people had officially opened the newly constructed Astoria-Megler Bridge, a handful of young men from Astoria slipped past the barricades. In the dark, still night, they ran all the way across and touched the other side.

Now, an average of 7,200 vehicles travel in both directions every day across what is the longest continuous three span through-truss bridge in the world, according to numbers gathered in 2013 by the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Beginning in 2009, workers contracted by ODOT have brought those vehicles to regular standstills as a much-needed maintenance project pushes forward. The end is still a long ways off with work expected to continue through 2021.

The project is broken down into three phases.

• Phase 1, which began in 2009 and is still ongoing, consists of removing the old paint that coats and protects the bridge’s steel and repainting the steel and also replacing “lost steel.” Rivets that hold the bridge together have in some cases been whittled down to less than half their original size by corrosion and the constant movement of the bridge.

This first phase, originally expected to be complete in the summer of 2012, has been slowed by discovery of unexpected amounts of corrosion and by weather interruptions.

• Phase 2 will consist of work on all the steel below the roadway in the main span including the towers that support it.

• Phase 3 will likely begin in the middle of Phase 2 work and will consist of painting the trusses below the roadway outside of the tall span section.

The work already has and will continue to cost many millions of dollars, a cost shared by both Washington and Oregon, with help from the federal treasury. Phase 1, the work that has been ongoing since 2009, is expected to be completed next July. As of September, that stripping, repainting and replacement work cost $17.7 million and will likely end at close to $21.8 million. The money comes from gas taxes and the federal highway fund. Cost estimates for the next two phases of work are not yet available.

The bridge, 4.2 miles long, the last chunk of road needed to create an unbroken coastal link from Canada to Mexico, is poised above the mouth of the Columbia River and a major shipping channel. The region’s fierce storms pummel it, salt water corrodes it. Constant traffic on the road above and in the shipping channel below means the structure itself never stops moving.

The bridge has a pulse, a steady up and down beat cushioned in steel and cement.

The world of infrastructure is thick with layers. On nearly any major road there are power lines and buildings nearby or tangles of land: steep cliffs, sharp drops, obstacles. For the Astoria-Megler Bridge, there are two lanes, one south-bound and one north-bound. There is a river below and a sky above.

“On the one hand, it’s kind of simple: We have to do this work,” said Pete O’Farrell, project leader with ODOT’s Area 1. “We’re blasting the paint and we have to repaint it. There’s not many conflicts. We’re not moving roads. We don’t have huge, unmanageable environmental concerns.”

But, though the bridge has had maintenance work done over the years, the current work is much larger in scope and addresses the entire structure. In ODOT planning meetings, the massive bridge casting shadows across Astoria’s historic Uniontown District has been referred to as “fragile.”

For the current work, ODOT had to coordinate with everyone from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Department of Ecology and local hotel operators. To contain materials as workers blasted away and reapplied paint, crews needed to hang tarps around the bridge, the equivalent of “putting sails on it,” ODOT Area I Manager Larry McKinley said. The bridge can handle only so much. In high winds, the tarps have to be bound back or come down.

ODOT and the Washington Department of Transportation share the costs of maintaining not only this bridge but all bridges that cross between Washington and Oregon. They split responsibilities. WDOT takes care of the bridge that crosses into Oregon from Longview, the Lewis and Clark Bridge; ODOT handles the Astoria-Megler.

While the announcement of the work itself on this fragile structure didn’t raise many issues at the time, there was one thing Astoria locals worried about: noise.

ODOT has had to make adjustments here and there over the years, McKinley said. They have changed the times workers are out on the bridge blasting off old paint or doing other potentially noisy work, restricting the hours so the early morning and late evening times remain peaceful.

“That noise has turned out to be nowhere near as obtrusive as it was thought it could be,” said Don West, manager at Cannery Pier Hotel last week as work on the bridge once again wound down for the season. The high-end hotel is located right next to the bridge. They installed white noise machines in the rooms near the end of building.

“But I’m not sure how often they’re getting used,” West said.

Summer is the peak time for tourists — traffic across the bridge increases. Summer is also a key work window for crews on the bridge. With flaggers directing traffic and only one lane open on certain portions of the bridge at times, cars can be stuck for a while.

“We just advise our guests to take extra time,” West said. “It’s become manageable and they’ve done a good job of letting traffic through.”

In some ways, the bridge has been an unlikely idea since before it was a gleam in an engineer’s eye.

Officials in both states had tried to get it built three different times and failed. They couldn’t find the money. A commercial ferry service continued to be the only way most people crossed the river.

“If you had a big deal going on the Peninsula and a lot of people wanted to go, they’d be lined up on this side for a long, long ways,” said Skip Hauke, executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, who can remember the ferry days. If you missed a ride over, you had to wait an hour for the next ride.

“And you always hoped you weren’t the next to the last car going on,” Hauke said.

Established in 1921 and purchased by the state of Oregon in 1946, the ferries were reasonably dependable but also slow, expensive to maintain and they didn’t cross in bad weather. When winter and winter storms hit the coast each year, ferry service often ground to a halt.

Between 1947 and 1965, the highway department lost more than $2 million on running the ferry service.

Then, in the early 1950s, the idea of a bridge came up again, but this time with the support of Oregon and Washington’s legislatures, which appropriated $100,000 to prepare plans, according to ODOT.

They called it “the bridge to nowhere.” When it was being built, critics said the bridge would “drain the pocketbooks of Oregon and Washington taxpayers for decades to come.” It cost $24 million to build — roughly the equivalent of $172 million today. The two states agreed to have a toll collected over a 30-year-period to help pay for the bridge. According to ODOT, in 1993, more than two years ahead of schedule, the bridge was paid off and the $1.50 each-way toll removed.

Sometime between 1966 and today, the Astoria-Megler Bridge became iconic.

Images of the tall main span with its complex branching parts are everywhere. It’s on T-shirts, depicted in oil paintings and photographs hanging on gallery walls, used on film festival posters.

McAndrew “Mac” Burns, executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society, remembers when Astoria was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial in 2011. The planning committee wanted to come up with a logo, something simple to put on pins, signs and pamphlets, something that would scream, “Astoria!”

For the relative newcomers or people who had only recently moved back, the answer was obvious, said Burns. Use the bridge. But for people who had grown up here, the 125-foot-tall Astoria Column built at the top of Coxcomb Hill in 1926 represented the city. Hundreds of thousands of people visit it each year.

Those in support of the bridge won the day, though.

The bridge is practical and beautiful, said O’Farrell.

“The river doesn’t separate Oregon and Washington, it connects them,” Hauke likes to say.

It can be complicated icon. Mostly, people cross it to get somewhere else. But they also photograph it, leaning back in awe to look at it. They might enjoy the ride across it. Still, the sheer length, the wide expanse of water rushing below and the narrow lanes remain intimidating. Gulls and cormorants, surfing the wind, sometimes sail right into oncoming cars, their bodies littering the road’s shoulders.

As Hauke explained it recently: “People love to look at the bridge but they don’t always want to cross it.”

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