Baltimore bridge disaster prompts concerns about Longview crossing, Wilson says

Destruction of Key Bridge is wake-up call for Washington state, says Longview senator – calls for Legislature to study bridge vulnerabilities statewide

Photo credit: Cacaphony/ CC 3.0

OLYMPIA – Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, says the destruction of Baltimore’s Key Bridge by an out-of-control container ship ought to raise concerns about Washington state’s aging river crossings, including Longview’s 95-year-old Lewis and Clark bridge.

Wilson plans to introduce a bill for the 2025 legislative session to study vulnerability of bridges on Washington waterways to impacts from commercial vessels. Pier protection would be a major focus, including fenders and artificial reefs known as “dolphins” that ground ships before they can strike.

“One thing many people may have forgotten is that we used to have fenders around the piers at the Lewis and Clark Bridge,” Wilson said. “These were removed in the 1990s and never replaced. With the amount of commercial shipping between Astoria and Portland, we’ve been lucky there’s never been an accident. So let’s knock on wood and start asking what we need to do to ensure this can’t happen here.”

Wilson is concerned about strikes from massive commercial vessels capable of doing major damage or taking down a bridge, as happened in Baltimore Harbor March 26. Such vessels regularly travel the Columbia on the way to the ports of Astoria, Longview, Vancouver and Portland. They cross under bridges at Astoria and Longview. Another area of concern is the Port of Seattle, where freighters travel up the Duwamish. When a freighter struck a pier on the Spokane Street Bridge in that city in 1978, it shut down part of a vital crossing to West Seattle and snarled traffic for the next six years.

Wilson said his legislation also might encompass bridges on the Columbia and Snake River system between Vancouver and Lewiston, which is kept navigable for barge-and-tug traffic. He will finalize the bill in December when bill introductions are permitted for the 2025 session.

Wilson has called for greater scrutiny of the Lewis and Clark Bridge and its possible reconstruction or replacement. The bridge, built in 1929, was shut down for most of a week last summer to replace brittle “finger joints” and to repair cracked and broken concrete on the bridge deck. Wilson said the shutdown required long detours to Portland and Astoria and reminded travelers of the importance of the Longview crossing. State highway officials say the two-lane bridge can last indefinitely if it is kept in good repair, but Wilson says the limited capacity is inadequate for current traffic.

Protecting bridge piers was a concern for the state Department of Transportation when it took control of the Lewis and Clark Bridge from the Longview Bridge Company in 1950. It installed a set of timber fenders at the two midriver bridge piers in 1950 and 1951. These were removed in 1992 and 1993 due to deterioration. Because the chance of a bridge strike was considered low, the wooden fenders were not replaced. Instead, DOT placed rubber bumpers around bridge supports and a radar beacon system was installed.

The Baltimore accident has raised awareness of bridge strikes and the need to protect bridge piers, Wilson said. “The Lewis and Clark Bridge is especially vulnerable, but there are other bridge piers across the state that need protection,” he said. “We need to get ahead of this problem, and a study is a good place to start. I’m not suggesting that a wooden piling is enough to protect a bridge, but one thing we might do is to pile rocks and earth around bridge piers to stop ships before they can do damage. What a study can tell us is whether it makes more sense just to build a new bridge.”