Jerry Cornfield

(Washington State Standard) Replacing the Hood River Bridge in the next decade will likely mean a near doubling of tolls this fall on the historic span linking Oregon and Washington in the central Columbia River Gorge.

A study released last week concluded two toll hike options under consideration could generate the desired share of financing for the $520 million project now planned for completion by 2031.

Under one scenario, the standard toll for a car or pick-up would rise from $2 to $3.50, and from $1 to $1.75 for those with a prepaid BreezeBy account. The other scenario would boost each type of fare by $1.

The analysis produced for the Washington State Transportation Commission assumed some form of a fare hike taking effect Sept. 1. But it did not make a recommendation.

That decision lies with the Port of Hood River Commission in Oregon which could act at its July 11 meeting. Late last month, the Bistate Working Group – composed of representatives from Oregon and Washington – backed the first scenario.

“This is good news for the communities this bridge serves, and the freight that moves across it,” said Reema Griffith, executive director of the Washington transportation commission. “This planning level study demonstrates that toll rates can be set at reasonable levels and generate the funding needed to finance the construction of a new bridge across the river.”

A century of slow going

The Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge, Hood River Bridge for short, was built by the Oregon-Washington Bridge Company and opened to traffic Dec. 9, 1924.

It spans the Columbia River between Interstate 84 in Oregon and State Route 14 in Washington, connecting the communities of Hood River on the Oregon side and White Salmon and Bingen in Washington.

On average, there are 4.5 million trips made annually across the nearly mile-long, two-lane steel-deck draw bridge. Each trip is bumpy, as the grated road surface is akin to driving across a very long cattle guard. It is estimated that 55% of bridge users are Washington residents and 45% hail from Oregon.

The lanes are narrow – just under 9-and-a-half-feet with no shoulders – so narrow that losing mirrors off larger vehicles is common and trucks often get stuck together causing hours-long delays, according to bridge authorities.

When constructed, the Columbia River crossing provided horse-drawn carriages and Model-Ts a state-of-the-art structure on which to travel.

Completion of the Bonneville Dam brought higher water levels in the river and led to a near total rebuilding of the bridge in 1938. New decks went in. A tollbooth, too, plus the lift span that is raised several times a year and has become the iconic symbol of the bridge, which the Port of Hood River purchased in 1950.

The bridge is not fully functional based on modern highway standards. It has weight restrictions and might not withstand a significant earthquake. The Oregon Department of Transportation recently rated the bridge at 6 out of 100 for sufficiency. Port officials estimate it requires $52 million in repairs now and another $50 million to maintain it for the next 30 years.

A 2012 study on replacing the steel-deck bridge estimated the cost of a new one at around $290 million. It did not identify any funding sources.

Getting serious

On the drawing board is a $520 million undertaking for a concrete bridge with one 12-foot lane in each direction plus eight-foot shoulders. There also would be a 12-foot wide path for walking and biking on the west side. The new bridge would be located slightly downstream from the existing bridge and have a 45 mph speed limit, three times the current maximum.

A rendering shows the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge replacement with areas for bikes and pedestrians to cross the river safely. (Courtesy of Michael Shannon, project director)
A rendering shows the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge replacement with areas for bikes and pedestrians to cross the river safely. (Courtesy of Michael Shannon, project director)

Funding is expected to come from four primary sources: the states of Washington and Oregon, the federal government and tolls. Roughly $118 million has been secured to date.

Of the total, Washington has committed $80 million – a $5 million planning grant in 2020 and $75 million in the Move Ahead Washington transportation package passed last year.

Oregon is in for $30 million thus far, including a $20 million allotment in the just-completed legislative session.

Two federal grants totaling $8.6 million have been received. The latest, valued at $3.6 million, came last week and will help in planning for the pedestrian and bike path.

Ultimately, the goal is to end up with $125 million from each state and as much as $195 million in federal funding.

That leaves a revenue stream from tolls of at least $75 million.

The preferred option

When the Port of Hood River commissioners gather July 11, they will consider hiking tolls for all types of vehicles.

Under the recommended proposal, tolls would rise for cars and pick-ups by $1.50 and for motorcycles by $2. The increase will only be 75 cents if drivers have a BreezeBy account. Rates for commercial trucks would climb $2 for cash and prepaid accounts.

The analysis provided to the Washington State Transportation Commission said the increases this fall could create up to $95 million in “funding capacity” in the next 40 years, money for use to pay for bridge operations and paying off construction bonds.

Meanwhile, the Hood River-White Salmon Bridge Authority came into existence Saturday.

This group is composed of six voting members, three each from Klickitat County in Washington and Hood River County in Oregon. It will oversee the bridge replacement project as well as manage operations, maintenance and toll-setting once the new bridge is open.