For the past several years, a multi-jurisdiction, bi-state partnership has been working to come up with a feasible solution on how to replace the Hood River Toll Bridge.
But efforts to replace the aging bridge that links Hood River with Bingen and White Salmon are in limbo due to a lack of funding for an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) on the project.
"A few years back, we received federal money to continue with an Environmental Impact Study," explained Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel. "We were given about $550,000, but it wasn't enough to do it. We need a little over $1 million more."
Until the EIS is completed, the preliminary engineering for construction of a new bridge cannot begin.
To help overcome that obstacle, a "memorandum of understanding" is being circulated among the political entities involved in the bridge replacement project. The memorandum is geared to build support for additional funding of a "Final Environmental Impact Statement" for the SR 35 bridge project.
The memorandum's specific goal is "to agree to work cooperatively to secure the necessary funding for completion of the SR 35 Final Environmental Impact Statement."
In late January, the Bingen City Council voted unanimously to add its support to the memorandum, and the White Salmon City Council will discuss the issue during its regular meeting on Feb. 6.
Built in 1924, the Hood River Toll Bridge is the second-oldest bridge over the Columbia River, and its deficiencies are many.
According to information provided by the Vancouver-based Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council (RTC), the 4,418-foot long bridge is "functionally obsolete."
"Its deficiencies include narrow travel lanes, lack of pedestrian and bicycle facilities, low load-carrying capacity, substandard river channel span, and vulnerability to a seismic event," read a "white paper report" that was written by the RTC board based on a recent study of the bridge.
Jurisdictions being asked to support the memorandum are Skamania County, Klickitat County, and Hood River County; the cities of White Salmon, Bingen, and Hood River; the Port of Hood River; the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Washington Department of Transportation.
Dale Robins, senior transportation planner for the RTC, said most of the various jurisdictions have already signed on to the memorandum.
"No one has told me no," Robins said. "All of the Oregon side has approved it already."
Robins said even the Port of Hood River, which owns and operates the existing bridge and collects the tolls, supported the replacement effort.
"The Port wants to maintain the bridge as long as possible, but it's aging and they realize it's prudent for them to move forward with a bridge that will be needed at some time," Robins said.
Robins added that if one state agrees to provide money for the bridge study, that would help to provide leverage.
"I expect we'd then go to the other state and say, `look, the other state gave us money,' and hopefully they would match it," Robins explained. "We're also seeking funds from federal sources, but those earmarks are drying up."
Robins said the process could probably go forward with less than $1 million.
"If we could get half a million, we could launch it," he said.
The memorandum highlights three key points:
The Hood River Bridge is vital to the region's transportation network and health of the region's economy;
The region should begin now to plan for the future replacement of the existing Hood River Bridge;
Where appropriate, all agencies will coordinate and cooperate in support of securing local, state, and federal funding for the SR 35 FEIS and in particular work with the Oregon Legislature and Washington Legislature to: a) include the SR 35 Columbia River crossing FEIS on priority transportation lists; b) seek state funding for the FEIS; and c) support bi-state partners in seeking legislative funding with letters of support or other appropriate methods to express support.
"It would be nice to have a new bridge," said White Salmon Mayor David Poucher, adding that he supports the memorandum in principle.
"It's not an action item for this week; it's just informational only," Poucher said. "I'm sure it will go to an action item, but we'll wait to see what the council has to say."
Prigel pointed out that the initial planning work already completed could become essentially worthless if no further analysis takes place soon.
"There is not a hard and fast deadline, but yes, an EIS does have a shelf life," Prigel said. "As long as there is movement toward the goal, it remains valid. Otherwise, there is a date when you'd have to go back and redo it. We're hoping that the process keeps the project moving forward. It's slow progress, but slow progress is better than no progress."
"We don't want to start over again," Poucher added.
The member agencies involved are hopeful that the states will come up with a portion of the needed money for the final EIS, which will require about two years of study to complete.
"We're trying to maintain momentum. We'll see," Prigel said. "Maybe 10 years from now we can start a new bridge. I think it will take that long."
"Realistically, we're not anticipating construction in the next 10 years," Robins said. "But it's like with your automobile: If you don't plan for replacing it and don't set money aside, you'd better plan for getting a big loan."