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Federal aid of $62 million would enable state to add lanes and reinforce bridge against severe earthquake; state would put up the rest of $122 million to uncork traffic bottleneck.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - The Abernethy Bridge across the Willamette River was built in 1970, before the completion of work on Interstate 205 between Oregon City and West Linn.Oregon has renewed its bid for federal money to widen the George Abernethy Bridge, which carries Interstate 205 across the Willamette River in Clackamas County, and reinforce it further against a severe earthquake.

The Oregon Transportation Commission voted Thursday (Dec. 15) to approve the bid — the second time it has been submitted by the Oregon Department of Transportation — and it's also been endorsed by four U.S. representatives from Oregon.

"We have our fingers crossed," said Tammy Baney, a Deschutes County commissioner who leads the state commission. "But sometimes Round 2 is best."

The bid to the U.S. Department of Transportation is for $62 million of a total $122 million project. The rest would be drawn from state transportation funds planned for 2018-21.

The bridge dates back to 1970, years before I-205 was completed, and connects West Linn with Oregon City. The bridge would be widened from two to three lanes north and south.

After an onsite visit April 28, Gov. Kate Brown pledged her support for a $150 million project to upgrade the bridge.

The project would involve only the bridge.

County, regional and state officials have also given high priority to widening the 5.9-mile stretch of I-205 between Stafford Road and the bridge from two to three lanes in each direction. It's the only narrow stretch on the 37-mile interstate. But that work will have to await what state lawmakers might do in their 2017 session about increasing money for highways and other transportation projects.

I-205 is designated as a corridor of national significance under 2015 congressional legislation that renewed federal transportation spending authority for five years.

"Last year, I offered an amendment that designated I-205 as a high-priority corridor, the first step in securing federal partnership on this project," said U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Canby whose 5th District includes the bridge and most of Clackamas County.

"It's absolutely vital now that US DOT recognize the necessity of this grant to create a safe and reliable route for both local and freight traffic in day-to-day business, and particularly in cases of emergency."

Also signing the endorsement were Reps. Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio. DeFazio is the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Their Dec. 15 letter went to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.

Other features

The project also would combine two on-ramps onto I-205 from Highway 43 at the bridge's south end and add phased on-ramp signals, known as "active traffic management."

Rian Windsheimer, ODOT's Portland regional manager, told the commission that the proposed signals are similar to those already in use on Highway 217 in Washington County.

Between 2009 and 2013, 261 crashes were reported on the bridge, and Windsheimer said that rate is about three times the state average. He said the proposed improvements would reduce crashes by 21 percent.

The project also calls for additional reinforcement of the bridge against a severe earthquake off Oregon's coast that has a 15 to 20 percent chance of occurring in the next 50 years. The most recent such quake occurred in 1700, but according to new research disclosed earlier this year, quakes are likely to occur on an average of 350 years instead of 500 years.

The bridge underwent reinforcement in the early 2000s.

Windsheimer said if seismic work were done at the same time as other bridge improvements, it would save an estimated $40 million to $50 million — and could strengthen Oregon's bid for federal aid.

"It is something the feds are looking for in terms of why we should be doing this now," he told the commission, whose five members are ODOT's policy-making arm.

Even if Oregon gets the federal grant, he said, construction is envisioned for 2021.

"It seems like a long way off, but we have a lot of work to do between now and then," Windsheimer said.

The Abernethy Bridge project, and another project proposed on Interstate 84 between Pendleton and La Grande, are among those competing for a national pot of $850 million.

National competition

When Congress acted in 2015, it created two pots of money intended to ease the movement of freight on major highways.

All states get amounts earmarked for that purpose. Oregon has already designated some of its money for a southbound auxiliary lane on I-5 between Highway 217 in Tigard and I-205 in Tualatin.

But the other pot, currently $850 million, goes to competitive grants. Oregon did get one of the 18 grants in the first round, $11 million to improve several tunnels on the Coos Bay Rail Line that links the Port of Coos Bay with Eugene.

The grant program is known as FASTLANE, which stands for Fostering Advancements in Shipping and Transportation for the Long-term Achievement of National Efficiencies.

The two Oregon projects will not compete with each other. The 2015 law sets aside 25 percent of the competitive grants for rural areas, and the I-84 project seeks $17 million from that share.

Highway Division Administrator Paul Mather said if Oregon succeeds with one or both bids — especially the I-205 work — ODOT will have to match the grants with virtually all the money available for such purposes in the next statewide transportation improvement program. The proposed program, which runs from 2018 to 2021, is now up for public comment.

If lawmakers fail to agree in 2017 to increase money for highways and other transportation projects, Mather said, "we would be in a situation where projects that normally would be funded under the (2018-21) plan would be delayed until the next plan."

Still, Mather urged the state commission to proceed.

"We think this opportunity is significant enough that we can leverage these federal dollars, and this strategy is the appropriate one," he said.

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