Brand Stories - Washington & Oregon collaborate to secure a coveted BUILD grant & pursue a replacement bridge for the Mid-Columbia River region
For roughly a century the Hood River Bridge has linked Washington and Oregon, unifying the area into the Mid-Columbia River Region. Worn by years of steady economic growth, the old structure’s limitations have started to show. To strengthen its pursuit of a new bridge, the Port of Hood River partnered with Klickitat County, Wash., on the other side of the Columbia, forming a powerful partnership that has already proven its worth.
After relaunching the replacement bridge project three years ago, the port engaged representatives from Klickitat and Hood River Counties in a joint effort. Both parties equally rely on the four million trips made across the water annually.
“With the development of our regional economy, the port has taken the view that our mission is best served by fostering the growth of our regional identity and brand, and the bridge is the heart of that,” explains John Everitt, President of the Port of Hood River Commission. “We have growers that grow fruit in Oregon and pack fruit in Bingen [Washington].”
A production powerhouse spanning farming, aeronautics, food processing and beyond, the Mid-Columbia River region’s economic activities hinge on the flow of products and people in and out.
“The White Salmon-Hood River Bridge replacement project is the top priority identified in our region’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy. Its critical role in being a lifeline for not only the quality of life for Gorge Washingtonians but also our regional commerce, tourism, and recreation is hard to overstate,” says White Salmon Mayor Marla Keethler. “Ensuring the long-term resiliency of north shore communities, such as White Salmon and Bingen, is directly tied to confidence that we have a bridge to carry us forward for the next 100 years.”
According to Jessica Metta, Executive Director of the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District, the existing bridge falls short for many reasons: “The current structure raises concerns over its age, narrow lanes and difficult barge navigation, as well as its lack of safety shoulders, bicycle or pedestrian facilities and seismic resiliency. A new bridge would improve the movement of people and goods in the Columbia Gorge and support livable communities.”
Furthermore, the current bridge may soon impede low-cost high-volume business, such as rock, gravel or logging, thanks to load limitations that tend to increase with time.
“We are always faced with load limitations. If further load limits were imposed, it would be a blow to high-point load vehicles like concrete mixers, who would be forced to add 50 miles to each of their trips,” says Kevin Greenwood, Bridge Replacement Project Director, Port of Hood River.
For the barges and towboats passing beneath, the narrow channel, high winds and growing shoals make for a challenging route. Millions of tons of wheat, barley and other products sail under the bridge each year. The new bridge would increase the horizontal clearance from 246 feet to 450 feet.
photo by Blaine Franger
“There’s a nexus between maritime and vehicular traffic because every time a tall ship passes through that requires a lift of the span, it stops all vehicle traffic,” Greenwood adds. “The new bridge would have a fixed span, eliminating the need for pilots to wait for lifts.”
While the port only receives that request about once a month, they lift the bridge several more times a year for maintenance, an expensive and inconvenient endeavor. Hundreds of thousands of dollars a year go toward ensuring the safety of the century-old structure, for example, in the form of side rail replacements and steel deck welding.
In 2017, the Port, which has owned the bridge since 1950, received $5 million in funding from the State of Oregon to complete the National Environmental Policy Act process that began in the nineties. It recently published its Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which completed its public comment period on January 4th. Citizens, agencies, bike and pedestrian interest groups and current bridge users submitted over 150 comments that will inform the final EIS to be released this summer.
Following that initial investment, the project’s next big break came in 2020 when it was awarded a coveted $5-million federal BUILD Grant. The source of the application’s success dates back to 2019 when the cities of Bingen, White Salmon and Hood River; Klickitat and Hood River counties; and the Port of Hood River launched a bi-state working group to galvanize a singular voice in the region calling for the bridge replacement. Washington state’s Senator Curtis King was instrumental in organizing the collaborative group.
“Everybody has a shared appreciation that it’s going to take political will and congruence at the local level to be able to make an impression at the state level. That’s what we think we can do with the bistate working group,” Everitt says.
The collaboration doubled the project’s congressional representation, allowing the team to lobby the US Secretary of Transportation from two states and both sides of the aisle.
“I don’t believe we would have made it this far without collaborating as a singular region,” Greenwood concludes. “These conversations and relationships transcend the bridge.”
“The bi-state collaboration for this project has been sort of a relay race for many years, with the baton passing back and forth across the river,” says Port Executive Director Michael McElwee. “Now, all of us working together in tandem, meeting regularly to map a pathway forward and advance critical steps has been key to these successes.”
The group’s BUILD grant was the only one awarded in Oregon in 2020. This funding allows the team to complete preliminary designs, engineering plans and firmer cost estimates. With this next step, they move closer to securing a bridge that can facilitate the Mid-Columbia River region’s economic vitality for years to come, supporting its communities and all they have to offer.
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