At this point, residents near Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, Wash., may just want a decision on a bridge. Any bridge, no matter how basic, boring and simple it is. Well, that wish is coming true with the latest developments in the 10-lane Columbia River Crossing project connecting Oregon and Washington. 

After a lengthy process—did anyone say years?—of determining how to replace the Interstate 5 bridge spanning the two states over the Columbia River, the initial design has been scrapped. And just a couple of weeks after ditching the proposal for a fancy bridge, plain-Jane won out for the final recommendation. Needless to say, plain-Jane also costs less and looks a whole lot easier to build.

The Columbia River Crossing went from an all-dressed-up, double-deck, open-web girder design to a run-of-the-mill single-deck composite-deck truss bridge practically overnight. Sure, the new bridge won’t be elaborate, but it will save over $100 million while being a breeze—or so we’re told—to build. Therein lies the rub, as many a famous movie (I’m sure books too, but I watch more movies) lines say.

Here’s the background. The current bridge is really two side-by-side structures, one built in 1917 and the other in 1958. The “hump” in the middle of the bridges has caused many an accident, the drawbridge features are clunky at best, the positioning of the structures make it difficult for barge passage and spans are simply old and in need of replacement. And, oh, this place is a bottleneck for commuters, meaning more lanes are a must.

So, in 2006 work started on figuring out what to do about the problem and by 2008 a two-state government committee had reached a decision on how to replace the bridge. Fast-forward to November 2010 and an independent review team called into question the bridge design as being too costly and construction issues unknown because of the rarity of the design. Then, in February 2011, a different 16-member bridge review panel called for a new design because technical and engineering issues “could not be overcome” and the price tag of $440 million for the bridge was higher than that of a tied arch ($430 million), cable-stay ($400) or composite-deck truss ($340).

Once the February report came out, governors John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Chris Gregoire of Washington immediately agreed and instructed the state’s respective departments of transportation to stop work on the open-web box girder bridge type and figure out a new recommendation within days.

Cue the deck truss option.

“The deck truss is the safest path for staying on schedule and has the least overall risk,” says Tom Warne, chair of the CRC Bridge Review Panel, in a presentation to project sponsors.  

The deck truss comes in with the lowest price tag, keeps the project on schedule for construction in 2013, meets environmental requirements (less impact in the river), has the least risk involved and will attract a variety of bidders that can bring competitive prices. The final design of the deck truss is the next step, as is the final recommendation to the governors set for mid-March after public comment periods close next week.

While it may not be fancy and may not win any design awards, government officials from Oregon and Washington expect their new bridge to come in on time and within budget. I guess we can’t have our cake and eat it too.