Oregon bridge history at odds with Columbia River Crossing’s future

WatchdogOregon bridge history at odds with Columbia River Crossing’s future
By Taxpayer Association of Oregon

“We should not build the bridge for today,
next week, or next year, but for the next 40 years.” (1)

These were the words J. H. Nolta, chair of the Columbia River Interstate Bridge Committee, used in February of 1912 to explain the need for a bridge with a 45 foot roadway. At that time there were fewer than 6500 automobiles in Oregon but Nolta, community leaders, and politicians knew that both population and automobile ownership would increase. By the time of the bridge’s official opening on February 14, 1917 there were 35,000 automobiles registered in Oregon.(2)

Nolta’s words were prescient. Almost forty years later, in 1950, engineers would start studying possible sites and estimating costs for a second bridge.(3) The 1950 daily bridge traffic of 30,000 vehicles almost equaled total Oregon automobile registrations when the bridge opened.(4) A little over forty years after the opening of the Interstate Bridge, the second span opened on July 1, 1958.(5) The ‘old’ bridge closed for remodeling, reopening on January 8, 1960.(6)

The bridge had three lanes of traffic in each direction, one more in each direction than the freeways on either side. The original span handled northbound traffic, and the new span handled the southbound traffic. The engineers and politicians had, once again, built a bridge to meet future, rather than present needs.

Even as the second Interstate Bridge span was being built, a second bridge across the Columbia River was already in the planning stages. Oregon State Highway Engineer R. H.

Baldock’s June 1954 report called for an east side freeway crossing the Columbia.(7) A 1960 feasibility study fixed the location at Government Island.8 When Construction began on the Glenn Jackson Bridge in 1977 97,000 cars a day crossed the Interstate Bridge. By the time the bridge opened in December 1982, daily crossings on the Interstate Bridge were 109,000. It took only ten years after the opening of the Glenn Jackson Bridge for Interstate Bridge traffic to surpass that number, and only twelve years for Glenn Jackson Bridge crossings to equal it.

Current combined daily crossings are over 271,000. This represents an average annual 4.6% increase in crossings between 1960 and 2005.(9) In March 1977, as construction began on the Glenn Jackson Bridge, forward looking Washington Governor Dixie Lee Ray signed a measure funding preliminary studies of a third Columbia River Bridge between Portland and Vancouver.(10) This plan was scrapped by the politicians in 1981 because its projected $150 million (about $450 million in 2013 dollars) price tag was “too expensive.” (11)

The proposed Columbia River Crossing, with its $3.1 billion and rising price tag, is designed to carry 180,000 crossings daily, and 46,000 during the peak PM traffic hours.(12)  Unless our current recession continues until 2020, it’s safe to assume that bridge crossings will continue to increase at or near their pre‐recession rate of 4.6%. This means that by the time the bridge opens in 2020, it will already be at its capacity of 180,000 daily crossings and 46,000 peak PM crossings. Fourteen years after its opening traffic will be at double bridge capacity.

What we also need to bear in mind is that the eight lane Glenn Jackson bridge is also at or near capacity, meaning that by 2020, we won’t need just capacity for an additional 55,000 vehicle crossings, but an additional 120,000, and by 2030, an astounding additional 350,000. Even if traffic demand increases at only half its historical rate (extremely unlikely) that’s an additional 55,000 vehicle crossings by 2020, and 140,000 by 2030.

It’s time to remember Mr. Nolta’s words of 100 years ago, and build a bridge (or bridges) for the next forty years.

1 “Bridge Plan Favored,” Sunday Oregonian, February 25, 1912, iii:8.
2 Oregon, “Oregon on the Move,” ODOT History Committee, 2009, 15.
3 “States Seek Site for Bridge,” The Oregonian, May 2, 1950, 5.
4 “Bridge History: A Tale of Two Bridges,” Columbia River Crossing, accessed February 25, 2013,
5 Hauser, Paul. “Rites Open 2d Bridge Over River.” The Oregonian. July 2, 1958, City Edition edition. 1.
6 “Twin Interstate Spans Open to Travel Friday.” The Oregonian Oregon Journal. January 8, 1960. 1.
7 “Portland Freeways Approval Promises High Federal Aid,” The Oregonian, October 13, 1955, 2.
8 Tugman, Peter, “County OKs Bridge Plans,” The Oregonian, October 13, 1960, 1.
9 “Traffic Counts,” Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, accessed February 25, 2013,
10 “Senate OKs Third Bridge Study Funds,” The Oregonian, June 14, 1977, B16.
11 Alesko, Michael, “Councilors Hint Favor for MSD Job Cut Plan,” The Oregonian, April 24, 1981, D4.
12 Cortwright, Joe. “Six Questions to Ask About the Columbia River Crossing.” CLF ‐ Connections 9, no. 1 (Summer / Fall 2007): 8–13.
(article revised 2/26/13 8:12)