In the early morning darkness on December 15, 1982, three buses loaded with VIPs cross the new Glenn L. Jackson Bridge over the Columbia River from Vancouver to Portland and return. Other than construction workers, they are the first to cross the $175 million, 2.25-mile, eight-lane bridge, first envisioned in the early 1950s and under construction since 1977. Later that day, the span, named for an Oregon State Highway commissioner, opens to all vehicular traffic and becomes only the second highway bridge between the two cities. The other is the Interstate 5 twin bridges six miles downstream, the first built in 1917, the other in 1958. The new I-205 bridge touches down in Oregon side on the eastern edge of Portland International Airport and just two miles north of an interchange with Interstate 84, which heads west into downtown Portland or east up the Columbia River to Eastern Oregon and beyond. The new bridge will not only speed travel time for commuters, shoppers, truckers and other motorists but is also expected to spur development in both east Clark and Multnomah counties. Indeed, the day before the bridge’s opening, an editorial in The (Vancouver) Columbian titled “Relief, But No Euphoria” urges local government to take an assertive hand in managing that growth. “If East County growth is not properly managed, Clark county could become another Washington County, Ore., with jammed intersections and rutted roads” (Columbian editorial).
Among the passengers in the lead bus that day were Horace Kiggins and Elsie Johnson. They were selected to join transportation officials and civic, political, and government leaders on the buses because they had been present 65 years earlier for the opening of the first of today’s Interstate 5 automobile bridges over the Columbia. Kiggins, a schoolboy at the time, had played hooky to ride over that bridge, which carried a trolley and one lane of traffic in each direction. Johnson was a young schoolteacher in 1917 and led her students on a walk across the new bridge and back.
The idea for the I-205 Glenn Jackson Bridge dates to the Eisenhower years, when federal transportation officials urged large cities to build one freeway through their towns and another skirting the cities. In subsequent years, various routes were proposed, studied, and vigorously debated before the present route was selected. The two states signed a design and construction pact in 1969, but work on the bridge itself didn’t begin until 1977, while the I-205 freeway itself along the eastern edge of the Portland-Vancouver area was being carved out of pastures, fields, and neighborhoods.
A Four-Bridge Bridge
The new bridge was actually four bridges: northbound and southbound from Vancouver over the river’s main shipping channel to Government Island in the Columbia River, where it runs on the ground, then both northbound and southbound from the island to the Oregon shore. There are four lanes in each direction, with emergency parking lanes and a 12-foot median that contains a nine-foot pedestrian/biking path, At its highest point, near the Washington shore, the bottom of the I-205 bridge is 144 feet above the Columbia’s low-water mark, leaving plenty of room for river traffic to pass below.
Because of its location near the Portland International Airport flight path, the bridge had to have a low profile. It looks more like a snaking freeway built on stilts than a traditional bridge. The longer, higher, and more complex northern portion was designed by Sverdrup & Parcel of St. Louis (now Jacobs-Sverdrup). The Oregon Department of Transportation designed the southern leg. Sharon Wortman wrote, “The original design of the bridge introduced to American builders a new construction method for concrete bridges called free-cantilever or ‘balanced’ erection” with “nothing in the world to rival the Jackson in size, with its deck of more than a million square feet” (Wortman, The Portland Bridge Book).
The Columbian described the process: “Cantilever methods allowed the piers to take on the appearance of huge ‘Ts’ during construction, with no supporting structure or cables above or below. As the deck was built away from the piers, the top bar of the ‘T’ became longer until it reached a similar ‘arm’ reaching out from the adjacent pier. Building the gravity-defying arms, which were as long as 300 feet, was a balancing act: as each girder section was added, another had to be spliced to the opposite arm, lest the pier snap like the trunk of an ice-laden tree. Never were the piers more than one section out of balance” (Ryll, The Columbian).
The Sverdrup & Parcel design won the “Grand Conceptor” award for 1983 from the American Consulting Engineers Council. But construction took a toll in human life. On March 23, 1979, construction worker Bill Kennedy Jr., 32, had not thoroughly attached all of his safety straps and fell from a scaffold 65 feet to his death. On December 2, 1980, Louis Gregory, 21, and Robert Kirby, 32, were in a steel cage hanging from the boom of a 200-foot-tall crane in 60 mph winds. A steel support beam collapsed and they perished when the crane plummeted into the river.
Traffic and Its Toll
Within a few months of the opening, the average weekday vehicle count in both directions over the new bridge was 38,400. By 2007 that weekday average was 146,000. Downstream, the traffic count on the old I-5 twin spans dropped from a 110,000 weekday average before the I-205 bridge opened to 89,000 a few months later.
But Clark County was growing fast and by 2007 the Interstate 5 weekday count was 130,400, well above its pre-I-205 Bridge number (Regional Transportation Council). With its 12-foot-wide lanes and emergency parking lanes on either side of both the northbound and southbound spans, the Glen L. Jackson bridge is considered on balance safer than the Twin I-5 spans six miles downstream, which have no place for emergency parking. But in its third year of operation, on March 1, 1986, five people in a single car died when their vehicle was essentially pushed off the bridge in a three-car pileup on the northbound span near the Oregon shore.