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Bridge deck panels cracking much faster than expected

When the Port of Hood River had new deck panels installed in 2004, they were supposed to last a generation.

Now, less than 10 years after that $6.7-million project was completed, the port is embarking on another project to repair those same deck panels that are cracking at their welds, leading to a potential safety hazard.

This week, the port began performing test welds on the Oregon side of the bridge to determine the best course of action for repairing the deck panels, resulting in traffic being limited to one lane while Bulldog Welding out of The Dalles worked on the structure.

Port Executive Director Michael McElwee explained that the deck panels on the Oregon approach just north of the toll booth are cracking near the tire travel area on the bridge. The deck panels are comprised of steel bars that are notched and connected at joints McElwee said resemble a “rosette” pattern, and welds holding the bars together have begun to fail. The cracked welds cause a distinctive “clack-clack” noise when vehicles drive over the bridge — a sound particularly audible near the bridge incline at the Oregon approach.

McElwee characterized the cracking deck panels as “definitely a safety concern” and in need of repair.

“What we’re most concerned about is a crack going all the way through a bar and then the bar twisting upwards and puncturing a car tire,” he explained.

Cracks on the bridge were first noticed last year, approximately seven or eight years after the deck panels were installed in 2004, which were intended to replace the last deck panels that were installed during the 1950s.

“The deck panels are supposed to have at least a 20- to 30-year lifespan,” McElwee said Thursday morning, “and we started seeing cracks about a year and a half ago.”

McElwee said there could be a number of reasons why the deck panels have deteriorated faster than expected, including possible flaws in design, but said that “at this point, it’s conjecture.” He explained that the company that did the work installing the deck panels went out of business and noted that it’s “highly unlikely we’ll be able to reach back and get compensation” for the repairs.

The port has budgeted $10,000 for Bulldog Welding to perform the test welds and McElwee said the port will be monitoring the samples over the winter to decide which type of weld will work best for the bridge. He said a welding project would likely commence in the spring to repair the bridge deck, but didn’t have an estimate yet on the cost of the project.

More test welding over the next few weeks will likely result in more lane closures on the bridge, although McElwee did not have the specific dates and hours as of press time. He said so far, delays have lasted less than five minutes on the bridge.

The port expects the delays to be worth it, though. McElwee said the repair welds are supposed to last longer than the original welds and hold for another couple decades.

“If it works well, it will get us back to the original life expectancy of the bridge deck,” he said.

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