Jerry Reagor knows bridges and concrete. The 80-year-old Kelso resident has been pouring concrete and building notable bridges around the Pacific Northwest for six decades.
So when you hear him say he’s worried about the Lewis and Clark Bridge, it pays to listen.
“This is an emergency,” he says, jabbing his finger down at a photo of the bridge. “We cannot afford to lose that bridge.”
At the very least, he says the state and community should be planning and starting to collect tolls for a replacement span, which might cost a half a billion dollars.
State bridge engineers say the 89-year-old steel span likely has 20 to 30 years of life remaining. Nevertheless, it’s still considered in “fair” condition and is not on the state’s list of replacements because there are higher priorities, said Mark Gaines, the Olympia-based bridge and structures engineer for the Washington State Department of Transportation.
“It is a safe bridge to drive across. It is an old bridge ... which is why we have invested in repainting it and redecking it,” Gaines said. “You want to get as much life out of it as you can because it is going to be expensive to replace.”
Reagor is not an engineer. However, he has worked on bridges all over the region, including the Astoria-Megler Bridge and Marquam Bridge in Portland. More locally, he’s done work on the Tower Road Bridge over the Toutle River and Harry Morgan Bridge near the Longview Wye, among many others. He still is a construction consultant.
For months, he has been trying to get state transportation officials to discuss his concerns with the Lewis and Clark Bridge. So The Daily News arranged a joint meeting with Gaines two weeks ago to discuss the matter.
Reagor has four main concerns:
- The “fenders” — the in-river structures made of stout timbers and rock — that once protected the foundations and main piers that support the bridge have worn out and eroded away. If a large vessel slams into one of the piers, the bridge likely would collapse, Reagor said. The absence of the fenders could make the foundation of the piers more vulnerable to erosion, as bigger ships and a deeper and narrower river channel have sped up currents.
- When the state redecked the bridge in 2003, the new deck slabs were made with lightweight concrete that absorbs water “like a sponge,” making them subject to cracking and failure from expansion if temperatures drop near zero. In addition, the new deck slabs were made with epoxy-coated rebar, which concrete does not stick to as well as uncoated rebar, weakening the slabs, Reagor says.
- The redecking project replaced five support girders with just two larger ones under each new panel. This allows more bending and cracking of the concrete as the girders beneath them flex under the weight of passing vehicles. At least one more beam should have been installed directly under the roadway centerline, Reagor said.
- The span is handling far more traffic than it was originally built for nearly 90 years ago, and the trucks that cross it are more than twice as heavy as they were when the bridge opened in 1930.
Reagor advocates placing a toll on the bridge to start raising money for a new crossing; restricting the weight and speed of vehicles; and repairing the fenders.
Gaines agrees with some of Reagor’s facts — but not with his conclusions.
True, he said, the bridge fenders are gone. However, even the originals likely would not have saved the bridge had a large freighter struck it. Modern fenders, which are made of sheet piling and rock could. “But these cost tens of millions of dollars,” and it’s not worth putting that kind of money into an aging bridge, Gaines said.
“It’s a financial decision,” he said, adding that the risk of a vessel-bridge collision is “fairly low.”
Divers who also are bridge engineers inspect the bridge’s foundations every five years. The last inspection, in 2015, revealed no sign that the river is undermining them and they were completely covered by riverbed soil, Gaines said.
Regarding the redecking project, Gaines said the state used lightweight concrete because it’s 20 percent lighter than normal concrete. (That meant a reduction of about 2,000 tons off the bridge, or the equal of 50 loaded log trucks.)
“The reason ... was to reduce the dead weight on the bridge to ensure it had adequate capacity for vehicular traffic,” according to a WSDOT summary of the bridge’s condition.
Gaines said lightweight concrete has been shown to be durable on other bridges, but it has one flaw: Studded tires wear it out. This is why the new deck was overlain with a 1.25-inch layer of high-strength “micro silica” concrete to protect the lightweight concrete below.
Gaines acknowledged that concrete does not adhere to epoxy-coated rebar as well as it does to standard uncoated steel. However, engineers compensated in several ways, such as increasing the length of “lap joints” where one section of rebar ends and another starts.
Epoxy-coated rebar – which is green in appearance and looks a bit like asparagus stalks — is far more resistant to corrosion than standard, uncoated rebar, he said.
Gaines disputed Reagor’s contention that the road deck — which is seven inches thick — is full of cracks and is weakening.
He said the state used two beams instead of five under the decking in the interest of saving time and restricting most bridge closures to nighttime. But it was not a shortcut that compromised quality, he said.
The bridge deck “is in good shape. We’re satisfied with its performance,” Gaines said.
While trucks are heavier, their weight is distributed over more axles. A load-rating analysis by WSDOT engineers shows the bridge is capable of handling all legal loads, and there is no need to limit truck weights.
So what’s the upshot of all this?
Reagor still is skeptical, remarking that the fender problem “is a catastrophe waiting to happen. … And there’s too much weight on that bridge for the way it was built.”
Officials are confident they’d find a problem before a catastrophic failure developed.
“We have a robust bridge inspection program. If we thought the bridge was unsafe, we’d shut it down,” said WSDOT spokeswoman Tamara Greenwell, who attended the meeting with Gaines and Reagor.
There’s no official timeline for replacing the Lewis and Clark Bridge. It is not on a statewide list of 100 spans earmarked for replacement in the next 10 to 15 years.
Twenty years ago, WSDOT estimated it would cost $200 million to build a new crossing. Tolls of $4 to $6 would have been required to pay for it, according to a Lehman Bros. analysis at the time.
A poll at the time suggested motorists were unwilling to pay that much.
The costs today would of course likely be more than double that 1999 estimate, but “it’s speculative” as to when replacement will become necessary, Gaines said.
How much longer the bridge lasts will depend on a lot of things, such as traffic growth, the nature of the weather, and how climate change affects the Columbia River, Gaines said.
“It’s hard to say how it will age.”