ODOT’s Already Building Bridges

“Graceful, distinctive, memorable, unique, curvaceous.” These are the words the public used most often to describe their hopes for the I-5 Bridge that will cross the Willamette River between Eugene and Springfield.

Oregon Department of Transportation promised this community a signature bridge, and they still want to deliver on that promise, despite soaring costs and tightening budgets. ODOT Project Manager Dick Upton gets quickly to the bottom line, with all the straightforward strength of a steel girder, “We intend to leave the place better than we found it.”

The first order of business has been to minimize the impact on the community’s current assets. Environmental impacts drove the bridge’s designer to reduce the number of piers in the water from over a dozen to only a handful.

The construction process itself is being used by the National Marine Fisheries Service and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to test new levels of sensitivity to salmon and other native species. Disruptions in the water have been limited to a few months each year when the impact can be mitigated most easily. The list of disruptions to be avoided has recently lengthened to include how loud the machinery under the water can be.

Meanwhile, there’s another native species being carefully considered, known as Homo Commutos, the human commuter. Whether traveling by car or bike, across the river or beside it, keeping the disruption of these routines to a minimum has been a priority. For this reason, the construction team will actually be building a span across the river three times over the next four years.

This summer, they will build the staging bridge from which all construction will take place. They will then remove the decommissioned bridge, which has been dormant for the past four years. Next they will build a new bridge. Then they’ll build it again. (The final bridge will actually be two bridges side by side, 16 feet apart.) They will also dismantle the temporary bridge we’ve been driving on lately. Finally, they’ll remove the staging bridge. All this must be done with traffic flowing across the river at all times. It’s been compared to changing your tire without stopping your car.

Bike commuters have been given similar attention. On both sides of the river, the goal is to leave the area better for bicyclists than it is today. A construction staging area in Alton Baker Park will require some detours from the current bike path configuration, but serious conversations include long-term improvements for the path system.

Likewise for Pre’s Trail, a running path that passes under the bridge along the river’s north bank. Fishing enthusiasts are also looking forward to infrastructure improvements. Canoeists also will not be forgotten.

This leaves the bridge itself. ODOT has hired Jiri Strasky, a world-class bridge designer from the Czech Republic, to design the structure. But only community leaders can help ODOT ensure that what gets built inspires local pride for generations.

Our community, for better or for worse, prides itself in process more than product. It’s less important for us what we got than how we got it. Our recent Federal Courthouse design process has shown the way. A world-class designer won’t win the respect of the locals, unless there’s also a local champion. Superstar architect Thom Mayne may have won a Pritzker Award, but without Judge Michael Hogan’s local passion, the formula was not complete.

ODOT reached out to two communities of local designers, and then something unique happened. ODOT asked artists to help them, and then they asked architects to help too. Rather than run these two conversations in parallel, they decided to fold them together. This weekend and next, a half dozen artists will sit around tables with architects, landscape architects, structural engineers, traffic experts, parks administrators, and historians.

“Graceful, distinctive, memorable, unique, curvaceous.” The conversations around the tables certainly will be unique and memorable. The participants have pledged their own good will and generosity, devoting consecutive Saturdays to the effort — graciousness begets gracefulness. If curves encourage “out-of-the-box” thinking and avoid both the oppositional and the predictable, these workshops — and ODOT — will have accomplished something distinctive.

All together, participants will wrestle with the single task of making this bridge a suitable signature for a community of diverse interests and identities. Wish them luck.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is the executive director of the Southwestern Oregon chapter of the American Institute of Architects. AIA and ODOT are collaborating on these workshops and both organizations approved this essay.