Passers-by have a number of theories about who has been hanging around the Astoria Bridge, including suggestions of thrill-seekers and protesters.
It turns out, however, the people nestled in ropes around the span have permission to be there.
An engineering crew has been conducting a routine inspection for signs of fracturing in the bridge’s steel infrastructure. Six workers began the inspection last week, and a smaller group will finish this week before returning in September.
The state Department of Transportation hired Burgess & Niple, an Ohio-based engineering and architecture firm, to carry out the inspection. The crew consists of structural engineers who are specially trained according to federal standards to probe defects in tight spaces.
Instead of heavier, more expensive mechanical access equipment that often requires traffic delays, the crew uses ropes to climb into otherwise inaccessible parts of the bridge.
“They’re inspecting the bridge in places we can’t get to,” said Lou Torres, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation. “The Astoria-Megler Bridge is not a typical bridge by any means. To do the inspection requires special skills.”
Burgess & Niple adopted the techniques more than 30 years ago and has used the process in more than 20,000 inspections.
“It’s kind of our competitive advantage,” said Will Strehler, a Portland-based bridge engineer for the company and part of the crew in Astoria.
Recently, though, one man’s competitive advantage has been another’s confusion, causing some drivers to call police after seeing the rope-swinging engineers.
Concerns about people who want to commit suicide from the bridge are a constant. On top of that, the 52-year-old bridge — closed to pedestrians — has also attracted photo-seekers and protesters. This past weekend, a man was taken from the bridge after walking up in fishing gear.
“Yes, we do get some oddities,” Astoria Police Deputy Chief Eric Halverson said.
When maintenance or inspections are being performed on the bridge, local law enforcement agencies are typically notified, Halverson said. But, “the public may not have that knowledge. They just see someone in climbing gear.”
While the heads-up can better inform some of the calls they get about the bridge, police still attempt to verify who is on the bridge and why, Halverson said. That tendency even applies when a caller reports that a climber is wearing construction gear.
“It’s a clue,” Halverson said. “But anybody can go out and buy a safety and reflective vest and go out without permission.”