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Oregon's bridge conditions improve, but a long-term decline is still expected

Oregon Department of Transportation
The Scottsburg Bridge in Douglas County, pictured in 2016 before its replacement. Bert Hartman of the Oregon Department of Transportation said the current rate of replacement is too slow to keep bridges within their recommended lifespans.

The condition of Oregon’s bridges improved last year, according to a report from the state Department of Transportation. But officials still warn of a long-term decline.

The share of bridges that are considered “distressed” fell slightly last year, amidst maintenance work and three replacements across the state. Previously in 2022, the "distressed" designation had hit a 10-year high.

However, ODOT Bridge Program manager Bert Hartman said the replacement process is still happening too slowly. At this pace, he said some Oregon bridges would need to remain functional for 900 years.

“A bridge doesn't expire like a carton of milk. We’re looking at a long service life, one hundred years, maybe some more,” said Hartman. “But what we have now is not a sustainable long-term bridge replacement route.”

Distressed bridges frequently have restrictions on the weight of crossing vehicles. Hartman said they're going to be more concentrated in Western Oregon, where there’s more moisture that causes the timber to deteriorate.

"Eventually, we will have to start replacing bridges," said Hartman, "because that future generation will be inheriting the bridges that we've been enjoying."

Hartman said more state and federal funding is needed to make a dent in the problem. He said ODOT is working on a request to put before the state legislature next year.

In the meantime, Hartman said the public likely won't notice the aging infrastructure, as there are still relatively few poor-faring bridges in the state, and every bridge receives regular safety examinations.

"The basic structural part of a bridge that's gonna be just fine. We'll maintain that,” said Hartman. “And if a bridge gets to a point where we have to close it, we’ll close it.”

Nathan Wilk joined the KLCC News Team in 2022. He is a graduate from the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. Born in Portland, Wilk began working in radio at a young age, serving as a DJ and public affairs host across Oregon.