Sellwood span to be closed Sunday for thorough inspection

Don't be alarmed if you see what looks like mountain climbers bouncing off the Sellwood Bridge next week.

It won't be performance art, a political statement or some kind of athletic event. It will be engineers from Burgess & Niple Inc., a Columbus, Ohio, company hired to carry out the most thorough structural inspection in the recent history of the ailing 80-year-old bridge.

The results will tell Multnomah County, its owner, how to keep the bridge in service until a new span or a major renovation can come to the rescue.

Any short-term fix, though, will be, well, short term. The question the county faces isn't whether to replace the bridge but when and how to pay for it. A replacement probably will cost about $90 million, and the county already is looking for $4 million to start the preliminary engineering.

What's wrong? Well, the west-end columns are twisted, the underside of the deck is dropping off, the rebar is exposed and corroding, and there are small cracks in the east-side girders and big cracks in the west-side girders. It has 'outlived its service life,' as a recent Metro study delicately put it.

'It's a little like having an old car before you buy a new one,' said Michael Pullen, a county spokesman. 'How long do you continue to fix it before it's not worth it and it's time to buy a new one?'

Every bridge undergoes inspection every two years, and because of its condition, the county inspects the Sellwood every three months.

This time, though, it will be a little different. The bridge will be closed Sunday for inspection and starting Monday, when traffic is moving again, the crews from Burgess & Niple will take over. The company boasts of using 'new approaches to bridge inspection,' which, in this case, will come at a cost of $100,000.

The crews expect to go over every corner of the span using ropes, crampons and climbing gear. They will be checking the cracks, the concrete structure and the deck. Unless something drastic is discovered, Pullen said, the results may not be known until June.

The county reduced the weight limit last summer from 32 tons to 10 tons, sending 1,400 vehicles a day, including TriMet buses, in search of other routes. The inspection next week will look for short-term fixes that could allow increases in the weight limit, perhaps enough to bring the buses back.

The good news Ñ if there is any Ñ is that reducing weight limits last year seemed to help. Pullen said the cracks have not been growing since then.

The bridge handles nearly 30,000 vehicles a day, the busiest two-lane bridge in the state and half again busier per lane than the Interstate Bridge.

Even if money for a new bridge somehow turned up, replacement won't be easy or quick. Pullen estimates that it could take seven years to get it in place, what with design, permits and neighborhood hearings.

'We don't know how much longer it can last,' said county Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey, whose district includes the bridge. 'We learn more with each inspection. If safety is compromised in any way we'll shut it down. That's all we can do.'

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