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Oregon DOT Upgrades the I-84 Graham Road Bridges to Create an Economic Boost Near the Columbia River Gorge

by: Larry Bernstein
Crews demolish the westbound bridge as part of the I-84 Graham Roads Bridges project near Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.
Crews demolish the westbound bridge as part of the I-84 Graham Roads Bridges project near Columbia River Gorge in Oregon.
The Columbia River Gorge along Oregon’s border with Washington is a renowned scenic area that draws hikers, bikers, campers, and tourists from around the world. The small town of Troutdale that sits along the Sandy River at the easternmost edge of the Portland area marks the western edge of the gorge.

The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) recently completed the I-84 Graham Road Bridges project in Troutdale that will not only benefit commuters going to and coming from the gorge, but serve as an important economic development tool.

The Area
The weather in the gorge can be rough, particularly during winter when large snowfalls sometimes occur, leading ODOT to shut down highways in the gorge.

“Troutdale is the last major stop before heading east into the gorge,” said Don Hamilton, an ODOT Public Information Officer. Troutdale has the services that travelers would need when stranded by a storm, including restaurants, hotels, and service-oriented truck stops. There’s also a small general aviation airport.

“The area is critical for trucking and it serves as a junction point for trucks from all the way to Boise, Idaho,” said Paul Scarlett, an Area Manager with ODOT who was responsible for keeping the project was on schedule, on budget, and within scope.

I-84 has an average daily traffic count of 25,000 vehicles in that area, with a large percentage coming from trucks. That number is expected to grow with an expanding industrial park in the area, as well as an Amazon Distribution Center.

ODOT understands the importance of the freight and semis that travel I-84 and their impact on the local economy. Therefore, they are determined to maintain the roads and bridges in the corridor.

Time for an Upgrade

Two parallel bridges along I-84, and over Graham Road, were aged and in poor condition. The westbound bridge surface, in particular, showed severe deterioration.

Therefore, ODOT replaced the bridges with two 100-foot-long three-span bridges that are projected to have a lifespan of 75 years.

“The clearance under the bridge was 13.5 feet, which is lower than standard,” Scarlett said. Due to the below standard height of the bridge, it could not safely accommodate the passage of large trucks and oversized vehicles. “So, the bridges were raised to 17 feet, 3 inches to get it to the standard vertical clearance.”

Graham Road had narrow shoulders and no designated pedestrian sidewalks under I-84. Plus, the two lanes on Graham Road under the bridges were not wide enough to accommodate the increase in northbound traffic that was generated by the new industrial development in the area.

Therefore, ODOT constructed a dedicated left-turn lane – taking Graham Road to three lanes in that area – to facilitate traffic. The traffic that uses the lane is headed northward towards the industrial areas. “Besides the help this provides in keeping the traffic moving, there’s also a safety component,” Scarlett said.

In addition, the team added a 10-foot sidewalk and a 6-foot bike lane on the east side of Graham Road. “We were focused on improving the area for all users,” said Scarlett.

On Time Completion
Construction began in February 2019 and was complete at the end of 2020, on time. The general contractor on the project was Carter & Company, Inc.

There were a couple of factors for enabling the team to complete the project on time according to Scarlett.  “There was a good rapport between the contractors and the project manager from ODOT…This encouraged the contractor to share concerns as well as suggested different efficiencies, and the ODOT project manager was amenable.”

Those changes were related to the phasing of the project, which ultimately worked well and led to construction proceeding faster. The team decided to work on the westbound bridge first due to its condition. The bridge was demolished and ODOT temporarily moved traffic to the eastbound bridge.

“Determining how to continue to allow traffic to proceed was a challenge,” Scarlett said.  The team worked closely with the local jurisdiction to handle the traffic challenge.

Another factor in keeping the project on schedule was the reduction in traffic the route saw due to the pandemic and the resulting shutdowns. “We were able to increase the hours of operation since there was less driving occurring and therefore, we got more work done,” Scarlett said. They did much of the work at night since it was safer for workers due to limited traffic.

While the official final cost of the project is to be determined – as the team is still finalizing closeout as of the writing of this article – it will come in under budget. It’s estimated the project will cost just below $19 million.

Because there was less traffic, costs related to traffic control were reduced. In addition, the team was able to do more work over less time as they added more hours to each work shift and got the work done faster. Condensing the construction schedule was a money saver.

With the completion of the project, ODOT continues to do its part in keeping the system upgraded and responding to the people of Oregon. “We did lots of outreach to the community to learn what their needs were, and we were determined to meet them,” Hamilton said. “This project is also a response to the economic development of the area.”

The traveling public will now enjoy a safer, smoother ride that provides more predictability, along with an aesthetically pleasing project. The trip to and from the gorge just got better.

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