A GREATER PRIORITY: Umatilla County to start Thornhollow Bridge construction in 2023

By Miranda Vega Rector of the CUJ

MISSION – Construction for the Thornhollow Bridge located on the Umatilla Indian Reservation will begin in 2023, about four years earlier than originally anticipated.

In February 2020, record-level flooding of the Umatilla River severely damaged the bridge, making it impassable. The bridge is located approximately 13 miles east of the Mission area and, up until its destruction, was considered the closest river crossing for those residing north of the river and in the Thornhollow area.

Drivers are now forced to take other routes when traveling into neighboring towns that not only add on to their commute, but are also risky.

“The alternate route puts northern residents at risk by forcing them to take the steep road up the Thornhollow grade, a gravel road which becomes hazardous and potentially impassable during winter weather conditions,” Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation Board of Trustees Chair Kat Brigham and Umatilla County Commission Chair George Murdock stated in a joint letter.

The letter was sent to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Congressman Cliff Bentz as a combined effort to show them the urgency for funding to replace the Thornhollow Bridge.

“The Tribe did a really good job at letting the state and feds know how important the bridge was to the community,” said Frank Anderson, Director of the Public Works Department for the CTUIR. “Tribal members were really worried about it. We were getting a lot of inquiries and concerns.”

Damage to Thornhollow Bridge not only impacts commuters, but it affects the community as a whole: Tribal cultural activities are impeded; Athena-Weston school buses have to make lengthy detours and may not be able to serve students at the bottom of the grade during poor weather conditions; and emergency services will not have quick access to those residing near the area.
“This hazard may even put those residents at risk that their only egress route could fail during future flood-related evacuation,” Brigham and Murdock’s letter stated.

Lily Sheoships, a CTUIR Tribal member who has lived at the top of the Thornhollow Grade for 28 years, had a similar concern.
“I talked about this with my family,” she said. “If another flood were to happen and the bridge isn’t accessible, it’s more treacherous driving from Cayuse Road to Cayuse Bridge. “Last year during the flood when I had to drive to pick up my friend, you could see the waters rising slowly … Having the bridge accessible would make it quicker to get to higher ground during another flood.”

Alaina Mildenberger, Office Manager of the CTUIR Public Works Department, lives in Athena and used the bridge for many years. She is very familiar with alternate routes and backroads but stated that there are some surface issues and limited signage at intersections. Although Thornhollow Bridge is located on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, it is owned by Umatilla County and serves Tribal and non-tribal community members. With an estimated $5 million cost of construction and no readily available funding at the time, the county anticipated construction would not happen until at least 2027.

However, on March 10, 2021, a press conference was held by Umatilla County Commissioner Dan Dorran to announce that the county received funding that would advance construction by “four plus years.”

Of the $5 million project cost, Umatilla County will contribute 10.27 percent while state funding will provide the remaining 89.73 percent.

Dorran said the county has been putting together a formula and timeline to obtain permits, remove the buckled bridge and design and construct the new bridge. Dorran said “he about fell over” after receiving an email from Ken Patterson, Manager of the Oregon Department of Transportation, saying that they would be able to start the demolition and removal of the damaged bridge immediately.

“That was huge news, big news,” he said. ”You go from permitting in 2025 to immediate. That was a mind boggling movement forward that we were praying for.”

Tom Fellows of Umatilla County Public Works said that there are a lot of hurdles to go through with permitting such as environmental, historical, archaeological and wildlife issues, but they are now able to start the process of obtaining permits.

“If everything falls into place, we could get the demolition done this year but I am not an optimist, so I am more inclined to say demolition will happen in 2022,” Fellows said during the press conference.