Published On: Sat, Jul 27th, 2013

Whilamut Bridge Ceremony Celebrates Upcoming Opening (With Slide Show)

Story last updated on July 27th, 2013 at 3:21 pm.

On Friday, July 26, U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, Federal Highway Administrator Victor Mendez, ODOT Director Matthew Garrett, and other dignitaries celebrated the completion of the new I-5 Whilamut Passage Bridge over the Willamette River.

(Slide show below)

The bridge-side ceremony, held in the Whilamut Natural Area of Alton Baker Park, celebrated the upcoming opening of the largest bridge replacement project in ODOT’s $1.3 billion OTIA III State Bridge Delivery Program. The bridge, which came in under budget, was completed four months ahead of schedule.

Noting that the Whilamut Passage Bridge is a model for similar projects around the country, Garrett told the crowd of about 150 that the new bridge will serve as a symbol to the community for decades to come.

“Bridges are the art of connection,” said Garrett. He called the graceful arched bridge “a distinguished landmark that enhances the surrounding landscape and adds value to the communities it connects.”

“Innovative ideas for the nation are coming out of Oregon” for highway and bridge design, said Mendez.

Mendez noted that while construction on this bridge is complete, workers will be able to move on to other projects in the state.

DeFazio emphasized the efforts to keep the local economy stimulated during the constructing. The project produced 884 direct jobs, saving fuel and saving time according to DeFazio. In addition, 1,247 indirect or induced jobs were created and 104 of the 121 companies involved in the project were Oregon companies.

“That money was recycled right here inside our state,” said DeFazio to a cheering crowd.

The Whilamut bridge is just one of many bridges in a list of ailing bridges in Oregon. Incidents like the Skagit River Bridge collapse in Washington state, prompt concern about the safety of bridges in Oregon. During the ceremony, Oregon Senator Lee Beyer revealed that the old bridge was, “actually worse off than we thought it was.”

“One of the things people don’t know is that when they started taking down the old bridge, it almost fell in on people,” said Beyer.

Garrett remained confident and assured that Oregon’s bridges are safe for travel saying that a single unit of skilled inspectors inspects every bridge in Oregon on a regular two year basis.

“Sometimes you don’t know how bad the patient is until you open them up,” said Garrett.

Many other challenges were also overcome on the project according to Jeff Firth, Project manager at Hamilton Construction.

“We used equipment that we’ve never really used before. It was either really going to work or it really wasn’t going to work, but it actually panned out very well for us,” said Firth.

Also among the invited guests were Esther Stutzman, Kalapuya elder, who led a traditional Native American dedication ceremony of the new bridge. The new bridge takes its name — Whilamut Passage Bridge [pronounced WHEEL-a-moot] — from the Kalapuya name for the area, meaning “where the river riffles and runs fast.”

The Kalapuya are a Native American group whose members include the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon. The bridge was named to pay tribute to the Kalypuyan people who were the first to settle in the Willamette Valley.

The Kalpuya Treaty of 1855 ceded nearly the entire Willamette Valley to the United States government in return for a permanent reservation, annuities, supplies, educational, vocational, and health services, and protection from violence by American settlers.

“It means that people are recognizing the presence of the Kalapuyan people. We’ve not disappeared. This is a legacy that has been going on since the world began and when people see the beautiful sculptures and references to the people, that will remind them that we’re still here,” said Stuzman.

John George, a member of the tribal council said that Kalapuyan people were very honored by the naming of the bridge.

“We look forward to further partnerships with ODOT to do other bridges in our ceded lands,” said George.

The new bridge features a graceful deck-arch design, whose arches touch down only once in the river. It serves as a gateway to and from the Willamette Valley and southwestern Oregon and is an important interstate link that is expected to serve I‑5 drivers for the next 100 years.

ODOT will host another celebration and bridgewalk on Saturday, Aug. 3, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Alton Baker Park. Visitors can take a self-guided walking tour of the project, including design enhancements, park improvements and the new northbound bridge. They are also invited to attend the ceremony, which starts at 11:30 a.m. With final construction in progress, access to the bridge is limited to visitors age 16 and older. For safety reasons, no sandals or open-toe shoes are allowed on the bridge tour, which begins with a six-story climb of a temporary staircase tower.

“This isn’t an ODOT bridge, it’s a community bridge,” said ODOT public information manager Dave Thompson.

Visitors are encouraged to walk, ride their bikes or take Lane Transit to the Aug. 3 event. Free, secure bicycle parking will be provided at the event center near the Knickerbocker footbridge.

A new southbound bridge currently carries I-5 traffic in both directions across the Willamette River; the new northbound span will open next month, restoring the four lanes of freeway traffic to normal.

“On August 8th, weather permitting, we will shift northbound traffic over to the northbound lanes,” said Hamilton Construction Project Manager Con O’connor.

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Slide show photos by Elizabeth Cully Prociw

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