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|Thursday, May 01, 2008|
Sauvie Island businesses hunkered down to survive years of bridge restrictions that hammered their economy. What choice did they have?
By Abraham Hyatt
From the cab of a front-end loader he’s driving through the Alder Creek Lumber yard, Dave Koennecke would be able to see the upper arches of the new Sauvie Island bridge if he were to look up. Instead, he’s maneuvering the loader toward a log truck towing two trailers: one empty, one full of logs. Koennecke lifts the logs with the loader’s giant pincers and drives away.
He’s also chairman of the Bridge Committee, president of the Sauvie Island Boosters Association and has a binder in his office several inches thick of documents on the island’s 58-year-old bridge. He has testified in Salem about economic hardships to island business due to trucking weight restrictions on the decrepit bridge, held countless meetings with elected officials and helped organize the island’s residents to push Salem and Washington, D.C., for funding for a new span.
The old Sauvie Island bridge is a sliver of metal and concrete that stretches across the Multnomah Channel and connects the island to the world. It’s a decaying link — a bridge that can’t bear the weight of a fully loaded semi truck. But what the bridge cannot bear, the island’s farms, ranches, nurseries and lumber mill must. They’ve lost uncountable dollars in revenue since December 2001 when the weight restrictions were put in place. Somehow they’ve survived. And now their burden is about to be lifted.
KOENNECKE DRIVES HIS TRUCK over the gravel road that links the mill to the island’s main road as he describes the history of the old bridge: It was installed in 1950; up to that point a ferry was the only way across the channel. In 1998, the Oregon Department of Transportation found that it met “minimum tolerable limits to be left in place as is.” In December 2001 an inspection crew found structural faults on the island end of the bridge. The original weight limit on the bridge was 105,000 pounds, the weight of a standard commercial load. That December, the county radically lowered the limit to 40,000 pounds. To put that in perspective, Koennecke says, the weight of a typical empty logging truck is 30,000 pounds.
Any island business that relied on trucking faced a hard road: the island’s farms and nurseries, which need truckloads of lime and fertilizer; the ranches, which need truckloads of feed; and the mill, which needs truckloads of logs. Then, several months later, the county was able to hold the bridge’s cracking girders together with steel bandages.
Egger leans against a checkout stand and describes how he stood in front of county commissions in a meeting after the weight limit was lowered. The island is zoned for agriculture, he told them, but if farmers are physically unable to farm, they have the legal right to develop their property. Egger actually likes the current zoning; he hopes to pass his farm to his son. But if farmers couldn’t grow crops on their land, what choice did they have but to develop the property?
Maria Rojo de Steffey had just stepped into her job as county commissioner for District 1, of which Sauvie Island is a part, when the first weight reduction happened. Islanders felt they’d been neglected, she says, and there was a lot of anger and frustration. But unlike other bridge replacement efforts, like Sellwood in Portland for example, the businesses and residents of Sauvie Island formed a tightly knit coalition, she says. And that became a powerful tool.
There are pictures with scrawled messages from schoolchildren: “Please help us pay for a new bridge. The old bridge has a crack in it.” “Please give us money for the bridge or else the bridge will fall.”
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