Chances are good that Astoria’s waterfront is not where you think it is. Nineteenth century engravings show a heavily forested hillside rising steeply just behind our tiny old settlement.
As with many waterside communities — San Francisco is another good example — the flat portion of modern Astoria is largely artificial, and more obviously so right along the Columbia, where the river swirls along underneath a series of wooden bridges and other structures.
Why the history lesson? In few other places is the past more closely linked to a successful present and future. In this case we’re not speaking of the symbolic importance to our economy of a rich legacy of tribal civilization and colorful settlement, but to the actual physical infrastructure that is a key bequest of Astoria’s industrial heritage.
As we’ve been reporting for months, Astoria faces an increasingly fraught near-term emergency over replacing six waterfront bridges between the base of downtown and piers that extend even farther over the Columbia. A tidy amount of the city’s economic and recreational life depends on these bridges and associated assets — everything from freight delivery trucks to the Astoria Riverfront Trolley and the Riverwalk.
Although deferred maintenance on essential bridges and highways poses a profound challenge nationwide, Astoria is comparatively fortunate in getting much of the bridge-replacement money from the state of Oregon — in part a testament to the effective efforts of state Sen. Betsy Johnson, along with Astoria’s increasingly positive reputation as an innovative and successful destination. Unluckily, however, construction bids ranged from $10 million to $10.9 million, or about $2.2 million more than the state has thus far authorized.
This is no small amount for a place of Astoria’s size and threatens a construction schedule that was calculated to avoid the worst impacts on local businesses, residents and visitors.
While construction remains pending, local businesses face an increasing prospect of having to alter operations more than they already have to comply with a 6,000-pound load limit on the decaying bridges. That’s not much, especially when dealing with appliance deliveries to Sears or even things like beverages for riverside restaurants.
The temptation is to push the limits, believing that bridges that have borne up under such weights for decades are likely to continue to do so for a while longer. This, as any transportation engineer will aver, is dangerous thinking. There are too many examples around the U.S. and the world of bridges that worked just fine up until the moment they no longer did, sending hapless users into the water.
If the weight limits aren’t observed, the state is likely to close the bridges to everything but pedestrian traffic. If that happens, all of a sudden there will be a resurgence in hiring notices for manual laborers to slog deliveries on hand trucks and carts from jury-rigged unloading areas to over-water businesses. Good luck filling those slots in the current job market, particularly with undocumented immigrants having been made persona non grata.
What can be done? Obviously for one thing, it will behoove us in the future not to overlook such vital links between Astoria’s land and water.
In the short term, it appears likely the city will have to undertake up to $131,000 in repairs to see the structures through until major work can commence. We should coordinate this effort with the state in hopes that some of this expenditure can be applied toward the full-scale replacement, perhaps at least by salvaging repair materials. We must also work with state lawmakers and other potential funding sources to come up with the additional reconstruction funds, or else find acceptable ways to shave expenses from the project. Such specialized work does not lend itself to bargain hunting at a time when contractors are busy, but there may be smart ways to achieve more for less.
Bridge replacement will be disruptive, but will probably pale in comparison to what the city experienced during combined sewer overflow work earlier this decade. The good news is that all this basic maintenance — unloved and largely invisible once complete — puts Astoria in good stead to enjoy continuing vitality well into the 21st century.