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Broadway Bridge closed March 21-April 11

TRIBUNE PHOTOS JAIME VALDEZ - Contractor F.D. Thomas of Central Point will remove the scaffolding from the Broadway Bridge starting March 21 after the 100-year-old steel was cleaned and repainted. Visible top right, red insulating blankets kept the live Streetcar line separate from the metal scaffold just feet above it.

While portions of the 100-year-old Broadway Bridge are being repainted, crossing it has been a noisy, white-knuckle trip.

Cars, buses, and the Portland Streetcar share two lanes hemmed in by metal scaffolding and portions are wrapped in white containment tarps like something from the environmental art duo Jean Claude and Christo.

That’ll soon be over. Finally painted all red, the bridge will close on March 21 and reopen on April 11. The bridge is currently restricted to two lanes and one sidewalk.

The bridge’s upper decks have received a fresh coat of Broadway Red, the bold color it has worn since 1961 that ties in with nearby Union Station.

On a recent tour, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Safety Officer Michele Espinoza explained some of the hazards of the job. “Wind and rain, is one thing. It can be bad up there. And then there’s the Streetcar line.”

This is a wet, windy, noisy, smelly, claustrophobic, vertiginous job...and that’s before the threat of electrocution.

The Portland Streetcar required added insulation between the live streetcar wires and the bridge to protect the workers.

Espinoza is from Las Vegas but has lived in Beaverton for three years and loves the Portland area, especially the lack of sunshine. She was a safety officer in Afghanistan for a year, where she used her knowledge of electrical hazards. The metal bar that carries electrical power for the Streetcar is only two feet below the scaffold on which the workers stand. If it wasn’t for the quarter-inch carbon fiber-polyester “blankets” (panels) that separate the live wire from the metal scaffold, the workers could get nasty shocks. “Electricity is live, it has a mind of its own,” she says.

Federal government money

The bridge’s easier-to-reach lower decks and ground-level areas were repainted in 2004, said Multnomah County spokesman Mike Pullen. Two sets of stairs leading to the bridge from Northwest Naito Parkway were repaired at that time.

“It’s so expensive to paint a bridge of this size that we couldn’t finish it then,” Pullen said.

The budget in 2003-2004 was $25 million and included replacing the lift span deck. Painting was 70 percent done when the money ran out. Today’s project will complete 2004’s repainting, and is courtesy of a $6.9 million federal grant.

Specialty painters F.D. Thomas, based in Central Point, Oregon, are the contractors.

“This is actually a very small project for them,” Pullen said of the company, which repainted the U.S. Capitol Dome in D.C. in 2013.

The current project repaints spans 2, 3 and at the east end, 7. When it closes, while the scaffolding is removed, one sidewalk will remain open for bicycles and pedestrians.

A rigid containment tarp encloses paint removal areas and keeps lead in the old paint from escaping into the environment. A reverse-flow mechanism is in place if the tarp is punctured. When it does — either by workers, or by vandals with knives, according to Espinoza — it gets sewn shut with steel wire then sealed with rigid foam.

Under the west end of the bridge, in the staging yard, F.D. Thomas has positioned its generator and the machine that blasts the sand up through a series of snaking pipes to the painters. There, the workers attach sandblasting guns. Most of the sand is returned to a hopper at the bottom where it is taken away and recycled in concrete production. Sometimes they use a needle gun

attachment for fine work, such as removing rust from around rivets, which could expand and forces them apart.

There are also fat hoses that bring air into the workspace. It’s as much to help the paint flow and cure as for the painters’ comfort.

Military-grade flashlights

Inside the containment on a recent morning, three men in facemasks prowl around with flashlights, doing touch up on the

grey undercoat. The air has the bitter smell of solvents. On what would normally be the roadway sit two giant white bags of damp, grey powder. It’s some of the excess Fesi-Bond used to sandblast away the old paint. Toxic compounds, particularly lead, bond

to it.

TRIBUNE PHOTOS JAIME VALDEZ - CA painter with contractor F.D. Thomas of Central Point navigates the scaffold and paints grey undercoat. Broadway Red was the big issue on most locals minds.

Modern bridges eliminate the need for expensive paint maintenance, Pullen said, as most are made of poured concrete.

“The Fremont’s columns were painted but probably should have been left unpainted concrete,” he says of the watery green-colored Fremont Bridge, which is overseen by Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). “The Sauvie Island Bridge and new Sellwood Bridge will weather, and then stop.”

Paint on certain sections of the bridge was quite degraded, said Pullen. “People might ask if the money would be better spent on potholes but if you don’t paint the steel the parts just rust away.” New paint will be applied to three of the bridge’s truss structures. Its guardrails and peeling handrails will be removed and repainted as well.

Most of the time spent on the bridge has been prep work. It takes a lot of sandblasting and priming to get the metal ready for the next half century. Handrails must be removed for painting, which means whole sidewalks disappear for a while. Safety is paramount — safety of the workers on the bridge, and of the fish in the Willamette. The containment areas are to prevent anything remotely toxic falling into the river.

In 2017, the Broadway Bridge will close once again to replace the eight-foot-tall wheels, or Ralls, that turn when the span lifts, according to Pullen.

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