Drivers beware: Oregon is entering construction season

PORTLAND — Sometimes, stuff just needs to be replaced.

Cars. PCs. Cell phones. Giant metal hinges that keep Interstate 205's Glenn Jackson Bridge from collapsing into the Columbia River.

Of course, it's not always cheap or — as the Glenn Jackson's month-old joint-replacement project has shown — painless.

Two of the bridge's four lanes in either direction will be closed almost every weekend through fall, likely causing nightmarish, trickling gridlock on both I-205 and I-5.

Last Saturday night, getting from the Portland side to the Vancouver side of the 2.25-mile bridge took Chuck Ford more than an hour.

"I counted all of 10 people working on the bridge," Ford said. "Isn't there a bit more stimulus money to hire a bigger crew? Let's do this thing Egyptian style."

Actually, building the great pyramids may have been easier.

Before we get into why, some good news for weary commuters: Crews are taking a break from the $5.2 million project Memorial Day weekend.

Of course, even with four lanes open in each direction, traffic will be thick.

In the Northwest, the AAA of Oregon and Idaho expects 4.3 million travelers to hit the highways, an 8 percent increase over the same holiday weekend in 2009.

The bad news: Road-trippers or errand-runners have 16 more weekends of lane closures to go — or not go, as it were.

Matt Garrett, director of the Oregon Department of Transportation, said traffic jams caused by the Glenn Jackson project have been worse than anticipated.

With 140 major road projects mapped out and funded this summer, including 40 in the Portland area, Oregon is entering the biggest construction season in its history. But few projects will come close to the challenge of replacing 20 joints on the Glenn Jackson Bridge.

Suddenly, Portland's worst traffic jam is on the weekends.

"It's kind of like remodeling a house and still living in it," he said. "We're just going to have to live with it for a few months."

Certainly, the house, er, bridge is showing its age.

Started in 1977, the I-205 bridge was completed in 1982.

For perspective, 27 years ago, the $2,638 Apple II, with its six-color screen and 48k speck of memory, was the most popular business computer. The first Mac was still two years away and Microsoft Windows 1.0 was three years on the horizon.

In 1982, the second-generation Toyota Celica, with its flared fenders, optional pop-up headlights and optional cassette stereo, was the talk of the auto world. And the first consumer cell phone — a suitcase-size gadget with a tall antenna, heavy battery and wired hand receiver — hit the market.

We've come a long way, baby.

That is, unless you're a bridge joint holding together the southbound and northbound decks of the Glenn Jackson. "They're getting old," said Jason Tell, regional ODOT manager.

The bridge carries 140,000 vehicles a day. Without the joints, built to help the bridge sections move with traffic for 25 to 30 years, the entire deck would come apart.

Replacing them isn't easy. Each joint section is encased in concrete that's reinforced with rebar and is approximately two lanes in width.

Crews are using jackhammers to get through the first few inches of concrete. After that, workers must clear the old joints with hand tools.

Cutting through the rebar with powerful pneumatic equipment would damage the decks.

During week night closures, the road crews are opening the joints and temporarily resealing them with asphalt that serves as a plug that cars can drive over.

During the weekend closures, workers replace the joints and reseal them in concrete. So, no matter how big the road crew, none of the lanes can be reopened until the concrete cures.

At the same time, Garrett said, ODOT is exploring ways to ease the snarls and frequent fender-benders that have come with it.

Among other things, ODOT officials hope new electronic warning signs on local streets will prompt some drivers to find routes other than freeways.

Of course, if you need to get over the Columbia River, the only other option is I-5's Interstate Bridge. For the past month, the gridlock gut punch has hit northbound I-5 equally hard, as drivers try to avoid the Glenn Jackson closures.

After promoting ODOT's website, Garrett had this advice for motorists: "You need planning. You need preparation. And you need patience."

Apparently, a lot of patience.

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