Polymer has been a shabby look for the Morrison Bridge.
Since Portland's busiest non-highway span was outfitted in new "fiber-reinforced polymer" (FRP) in 2011 and 2012, it's become a matter of constant concern. The deck panels began coming loose almost immediately (they were actually problematic before they were even installed, but the county used them anyway). They are cracking and shifting under the weight of 50,000 vehicles a day. And they've got the county enmeshed in a lengthy, technical legal battle over who's responsible for the defective $5 million project, which officials announced this summer would have to be scrapped entirely.
Now, a new twist is emerging. While officials initially said they'd seek to install a new type of deck—either an open steel grate like the Morrison used to have or a new, even more experimental aluminum system—they're now looking at trying the polymer again, apparently at the behest of the feds.
"The federal government has some say in what we do now," says county spokesman Mike Pullen. "They would like us to continue to explore these options, and even FRP."
In fact, the polymer might be a leading candidate at this point. Pullen says the aluminum deck officials had considered is expensive, and that the technology's new. The Federal Highway Administration, which bankrolled the Morrison's current disaster deck, and could pay for some portion of its replacement, doesn't like the aluminum option. As to a steel grating, there's a reason why the county did away with it in the first place: It's prone to wear, and can become slippery to the point of hazard in the rain.
"We were down to two (options) and now we're back to three with less support for aluminum," Pullen says.
As we've reported, the county has a history of issues with its FRP bridges. More problematic, though, is the fact that only one company appears to provide polymer bridge decks right now—a North Carolina-based firm called ZellComp—and Multnomah County is suing it, claiming its product was shoddy.
"The thinking would be that there are more fabricators than that one company," Pullen says. "It might be a big enough job for a fabricator to say, 'we haven’t done it for a while, but we’ll do it for you.'"
There's more fallout to all of this. Because the county's reexamining its options, Pullen says it's possible the Morrison won't be fixed next year, as originally planned. Instead, it will be shut down roughly one day a month, while county employees work to repair and refasten the still-loosening, still-cracking polymer panels.
"The bad news for the public is these monthly bridge closures are going to continue in the future," Pullen says.
The next closure is scheduled on November 23. The lawsuit between Multnomah County and various companies involved in the project is currently slated for trial in early 2015.