‘Bridge to nowhere’ now a symbol of success

The 50th anniversary of completion of the Astoria-Megler Bridge highlights the importance of transportation infrastructure investment and maintenance. The bridge has transformed the Lower Columbia River economy, mostly for the better.

The 50th anniversary this month of opening the Astoria Bridge is important for many reasons, some concrete and others symbolic. It binds our region together in every sense.

Nearly 3 million trips are made across it each year, according the Oregon Department of Transportation’s most recent report, three times more than 30 years ago. Cross-river traffic basically doubled between 1986, when there was still a toll, and 1996 after the bond that paid for the bridge was paid off early and the toll ended.

The Astoria Chamber of Commerce began lobbying for a Columbia River bridge in 1929. The first car ferry started a few years earlier and could carry only 15 vehicles at a time, sometimes leading to hours-long waits on summer weekends. In June 1930 President Herbert Hoover signed a bill approving construction, but the U.S. economy collapsed and took bridge aspirations down with it. There was another try for a bridge near the start of World War II, but it was nixed due to vague concerns it might interfere with military planes.

Continuing reliance on ferries became less and less tenable. By the mid-1940s, there were long summer backups for a single ferry making an hour round-trip voyage with 26 to 30 cars. By mid-1956, the backup reached 200 cars, even with three ferries running at top speed.

To considerable grousing elsewhere in the region, in 1959 Oregon lawmakers approved bonding for half of construction costs. The Bend Bulletin opined it was a classic “bridge to nowhere”: “practically no one lives on the Washington side of the river... [or] particularly gives a darn whether the bridge is built or not.”

It turned out Pacific County state Sen. Bob Bailey did care. By early 1961, both legislatures authorized construction.

Bridge completion eliminated traffic bottlenecks at Astoria and in south Pacific County, permitting tourists and other commerce to travel freely on the coast highway between Oregon and Washington. From a summer peak of a few hundred vehicles being able to cross the river in ferry times, the daily total can now approach 20,000.

Not everyone came out ahead after the bridge went in, starting with the 52 ferry employees who lost their jobs in 1966. With retail dollars surging from Washington to zero-sale-tax Oregon, towns like Ilwaco experienced a hollowing out of their commercial core. This disadvantage continues on the Washington side, though it is offset by large numbers of Oregonians who visit for events such as razor clam digs.

Overall, however, unification of the Lower Columbia economy made possible by the bridge means residents in both Clatsop and Pacific counties are able to take advantage of the best deals for housing, products and services — including healthcare and college education. For example, Clatsop Community College is the most popular option for graduates of Ilwaco and Naselle high schools, something that would be impossible without a bridge.

Beyond being grateful for the foresight and tenacity that went into bridge construction, what lessons should we take from its half century of success?

Horrible as the recession was, resulting stimulus spending brought the bridge back to nearly good as new. The deck surface still is in obvious need of repair, but assuming it is dealt with, the bridge is in good shape for decades longer. Its importance, and of other bridges in this water-rich place, also demands thorough examination of seismic retrofitting.

Learning from the bridge’s success, our region should actively envision next steps for transportation in the century ahead, as the population grows and the sea level rises. The bridge is living proof we are stronger together, and that investments in infrastructure pay big dividends. An icon of the Lower Columbia, it is something to be proud about.

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