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The incredible, improbable cable bridge turns 40

His father’s legacy is turning 40

Jeff Hendler shares stories about his father, Ed Hendler, the late former Pasco mayor and civic leader who spearheaded the effort to build the cable bridge. The span over the Columbia River, officially named the Ed Hendler Bridge, is turning 40.
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Jeff Hendler shares stories about his father, Ed Hendler, the late former Pasco mayor and civic leader who spearheaded the effort to build the cable bridge. The span over the Columbia River, officially named the Ed Hendler Bridge, is turning 40.

Bridge engineer Arvid Grant may have been feeling poetic on Sept. 8, 1978.

Grant was typing up a fact sheet about the unusual cable-stayed bridge he’d designed.

The completed bridge soared between Kennewick and Pasco. In eight days, after three years of construction, it would be dedicated and opened to motorists.

Washington Gov. Dixie Lee Ray would attend. So would U.S. Rep. Tom Foley of Spokane. Anyone who was anyone would be on hand to celebrate Grant’s masterpiece.

“THE INTERCITY BRIDGE,” Grant typed. “A concrete ribbon over the Columbia River.”

Sunday marks the 40th anniversary of the dedication of what was then called the Intercity Bridge. It was built to replace an aging, narrow span called the green bridge and to revive the fortunes of the cities on either side.

Whether it revived Kennewick and Pasco’s downtowns is subject to debate. But it introduced cable-stayed bridges to the U.S.

The Intercity was the first major cable-stayed bridge in the nation and the second longest concrete cable-stayed bridge in the world.

It would later be renamed for Ed Hendler, the Pasco mayor who devoted 11 years to getting it built. Today, most Tri-Citians refer to it as the cable bridge.

Grant’s poetic impulse was apt.

The most iconic of Tri-City structures, the cable bridge was — and is — an act of poetry in concrete and steel.

President Ronald Reagan thought so.

In 1985, the 40th president honored the bridge with the first-ever Presidential Award for Design Excellence. Architect I.M. Pei chaired the jury committee.

Ed Hendler sign
A bronze plaque recognizes Ed Hendler’s contribution to get the cable bridge built across the Columbia River to link the Pasco and Kennewick. Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

“The Intercity Bridge is not just a great technical accomplishment: it is a work of art,” the judges enthused. “(T)he elegance of the bridge lines, and the clarity of its structural behavior enhance the beauty of this utilitarian structure in way that can be perceived by both experts and laymen.”

The praise was lavish, but so was the accomplishment.

The cable bridge ushered in a new era of bridge building in the United States. One or two bridges like it open each year.

Tacoma built the 21st Street Bridge over the Thea Foss Waerway in 1997. Portland dedicated the Tilikum Crossing over the Willamette in 2015.

But the Kennewick-Pasco bridge was first. It was both impressive and improbable.

Two smallish cities came together to bridge a major river with a structure that would be noticed by a sitting president and one of the world’s best-known architects. It was a far-fetched dream at best.

In 2016, the bridge was deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. At 40, it is about 10 years too young, but could be eligible for early consideration for its extraordinary contribution to engineering.

“We would just need somebody to nominate it,” said Michael Houser, Washington’s architectural historian.

A modest proposal

Grant may have designed it. But Ed Hendler, a Pasco insurance salesman and one time mayor, made it happen.

Even Hendler had to be surprised at the result of his decade-long quest.

His initial vision was modest, according to son Jeff Hendler, who lives in Kennewick.

Hendler wanted to upgrade the existing green bridge, so narrow that vehicles took turns crossing it and teen drivers feared it.

When the bigger, modern Pioneer Memorial Bridge, aka the blue bridge, debuted in 1954 a mile or so upriver, drivers quit using the green bridge much.

GreenBridgeNatlParkService.jpg
The 1922-built green bridge is overshadowed by its replacement, the Ed Hendler cable bridge, which opened in 1978. The old bridge was demolished in 1990 after a fierce battle to preserve it failed. National Parks Service

Hendler realized that once drivers hit the highway, it was easy to bypass downtown Pasco and Kennewick in favor of the Columbia Center area.

The town centers were suffering. Hendler believed an upgrade could boost the fortunes of both.

Nationally, old bridges were under scrutiny. A December 1967 bridge collapse over the Ohio River had killed 47. The disaster prompted Congress to create the National Bridge Replacement Program.

The deal was simple. The feds would pay 75 percent if local governments matched the rest. The green bridge was an ideal candidate.

Hendler, chairman of the Inter-City Bridge Commission, went after federal funding while lobbying local governments to provide the match.

At first, planners proposed a two-lane bridge next to the green one. Each would carry traffic in one direction. The Interstate 82 crossing at Umatilla uses the old bridge-new bridge approach.

The the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local port districts nixed the idea. They viewed the green bridge and its 13 piers as an impediment to navigation. Barges rarely if ever passed beyond it.

Hendler’s bridge would have to carry four lanes of traffic on just two piers.

European bridge designer on a mission

Enter Arvid Grant, the engineer Hendler’s bridge commission hired to work out a two-pier solution to its bridge problem.

Born in 1920 in Latvia, Grant studied architecture and engineering in Europe before emigrating to the U.S. in 1951. He settled in Olympia with his wife and daughter.

Grant was on a mission to bring cable-stayed bridge engineering to his adopted home.

Europe was rebuilding after World War II. Every major German bridge had been destroyed. Cable-stayed bridges were built in their place. In the U.S., it was rarely used technology.

Those bridges have cables that fan from towers and anchor to the decks below.

Their cousin, the suspension bridge, has bridge decks suspended by vertical cables dangling from cables strung between towers. The Golden Gate and Tacoma Narrows are prominent West Coast examples.

Grant was looking for the right place to build. Form would follow function.

And the Tri-Cities already had a passing familiarity with the concept. The 400-foot Kiona-Benton City Bridge debuted in 1957 with steel box girders and cable-stays.

220px-Benton_City_-_Kiona_Bridge.jpg

Battling for money

Before Grant could build his bridge, Hendler had to nail down the money. The bridge cost $30 million in 1978, about $120 million today.

Jeff Hendler recalled how his father swatted down dogged opposition.

In one encounter, the state’s highway director told Hendler he’d get a bridge “over my dead body.”

Hendler stood, snapped his briefcase shut, and asked the man where he wanted to be buried, the younger Hendler recalled.

The highway director did not attend the 1978 dedication. His successor acknowledged the “adult discussions,” according to an account by the Tri-City Herald’s Jack Briggs, now retired.

“The reason that you and I are standing here talking is because Ed Hendler spent 11 years making it happen,” Jeff Hendler said.

Kennewick and Pasco financed the local share with a variety of bonds. The two cities also agreed to pay 50 percent of their share of gas tax proceeds for 13.8 years — $7,080 a month for Pasco and $9,800 for Kennewick.

Construction begins

Contractor Peter Kiewit Sons’ Co. of Vancouver began work in 1975. The Port of Kennewick, then led by Art Colby, a former Kennewick city manager, permitted Kiewit to use Clover Island as a staging area.

Sue Frost was the port’s secretary and treasurer at the time.

She remembers the parade of concrete trucks that drove onto barges for the short trip to the construction zone. The bridge took 42,000 cubic yards of concrete.

Mid-construction, Grant offered Frost a tour. The towers were complete. The bridge deck, consisting of a series of 300-ton stretches of pre-stressed concrete, had not been placed.

Wooden planks strung between the towers provided a platform for workers. Thin cables served as hand rails.

Frost set aside her fear of heights. The construction elevator rattled up a tower to the work platform, far above the river.

Frost steeled herself and stepped out.

“I walked to the other side, then turned around and walked back,” she said. She only pretended to enjoy herself.

Today, she’s grateful for the memory, and for the Tri-City leaders like Hendler and Colby for creating something special.

“The people who were leading us believed we should have something unique, that set us apart. I am proud of it,” she said.

A day after the dedication, Frost drove across the new bridge with her 10-year-old son, Matt Watkins.

Taking it for granted

Today, Matt Watkins has Hendler’s old job, mayor of Pasco.

Watkins was surprised the bridge is entering its fifth decade. So was his fellow mayor, Kennewick’s Don Britain.

Cable Bridge sunset
Looming above the Columbia River, spanning the distance between Kennewick and Pasco, the majestic cable bridge has welcomed visitors to the Tri-Cities for 40 years. It is officially named the Ed Hendler Bridge after the late former Pasco mayor and civic leader who spearheaded the effort to build it. The bridge is one of the most recognizable landmarks of the Tri-Cities. Tri-City Herald file

Ed Hendler died in 2001, but his son thinks he would be pleased “his” bridge is taken for granted. That was the point.

“This was all about ease of movement between two downtowns,” he said.

Its mettle was tested in 1986, when the state closed the blue bridge for a six-month rehabilitation.

The cable bridge took the load, something the green bridge could never have handled.

“I can’t imagine that cable bridge not being here. It’s just part of our landscape,” Britain said.

The bridge was renamed in Hendler’s honor in the mid-1990s, several years before his death. Jeff Hendler said his father was lured to Olympia on a ruse.

In the Senate gallery, he heard his name read from the floor. He was tickled by the acknowledgment.

Hendler’s family spread his ashes and those of his wife, Ivy “Pinkie” Glades Hendler, from the bridge. No one asked for permission.

The cable bridge would be the signature accomplishment of Arvid Grant’s career as well.

When he died in 2014 at age 93, the first line of his obituary recalled his Columbia River span.

The Structural Engineering Association of Washington named him its Engineer of the Year for 1978 and inducted him into its Hall of Fame. In 1979, Civil Engineering magazine documented the project in exhausting detail.

The bridge at 40

Hendler and the builders were euphoric in 1978, to the point of hyperbole.

A “bridge boss” who’d spent two years installing the cables boasted to the Herald it would stand forever.

Not quite. At 40, the bridge is middle-aged.

A human undertaking, it has an all-too-human lifespan. The Washington Department of Transportation puts its anticipated lifespan at 75 years.

The department has owned the bridge since the early ‘90s, when it took over from the cities of Pasco and Kennewick.

Last year, a $2 million project repaired the decking, installed a waterproof membrane and repaved it.

BridgeReport.com reports it was in “good” condition with a sufficiency rating of 84.1 after its May 2016 inspection.

The 2,500-foot span carries more than 16,000 vehicles per day. It’s “underused” according to the Department of Transportation.

Green bridge postscript: It’s hard to overstate the role the green bridge played in Tri-City history.

It opened Oct. 21, 1922, at a cost $480,000, about $7.1 million today. Before then, ferries handled cross-river traffic. The Pasco and Kennewick football teams chartered trains to get to their annual Veterans Day game.

Motorists paid 75 cents per vehicle and 10 cents per passenger for a one-way trip, about $11 and $1.50 today.

The toll was eliminated in the early 1930s. The event was celebrated like the Fourth of July, Floyd Hutchins told the Herald in 1979. He should know. He’d been the toll taker on the final day.

Pasco nurse Virginia Devine fought for more than a decade to preserve the old green relic after the cable bridge was built.

But the financing package and Army Corps concerns about navigation doomed her efforts. It was demolished in 1990, after two local elections and a court ruling.

Devine died in 2005.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514

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