Building a bridge to the future: Whitties team up to manage one of nation's largest bridge construction projects

March 6, 2013

Edward Weinman

Sellwood Bridge in front of rainbow, Portland, Oregon

Two Whitman alumnae team up to manage one of the nation's largest bridge construction projects.

What can two friends who majored in English and politics do with a Whitman education?

Move a bridge, and then build a new bridge.

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury ’89 and her policy advisor Liz Smith-Currie ’89 have teamed up to oversee the $307 millon Sellwood Bridge Project, which replaces the 87-year-old Willamette River crossing with a new, seismically-sound structure.

Deborah Kafoury ’89 and Liz Smith-Currie ’89
Liz Smith-Currie '89, left, and Deborah Kafoury '89

“It will be a bridge for the future,” Smith-Currie said.

“The old Sellwood Bridge was built at the dawn of automobile traffic. The new one will be ready for street cars [light rail system] and have more capacity for other modes of transportation like bicycles and pedestrians.”

Before breaking ground on construction of the new bridge, the old one had to be moved and strengthened so that it could serve as a temporary crossing over the Willamette River, which divides Portland, Ore., between east and west.

Repositioning a bridge is a complicated engineering project. It involves cutting the bridge off its foundation and then sliding it over to its new foundation. In this case, 1,100-foot-long steel deck trusses were slid over on rails using hydraulic jacks. And both Kafoury and Smith-Curie were on the bridge when it was moved.

“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” Smith-Currie said, describing what was one of the largest bridge moves in the U.S.

“A guy was there with a joystick, and he would push it forward and it would move very slowly for 10 to 15 seconds. It felt like a 5.0 earthquake. There were these little rumblings and then a burst of energy.”

When the “Big One” strikes

A potential earthquake is the main reason the Sellwood Bridge was replaced. The bridge rated a paltry two out of 100 on a federal bridge sufficiency scale. And if the “big one” that seismologists predict could hit Portland actually hit, the old Sellwood Bridge would have crumbled.

“Some drivers would literally roll down their windows when crossing the old bridge just in case it collapsed. Then they could escape out of the car,” Smith-Currie said.

Sellwood Bridge move
Sellwood Bridge being moved to its temporary alignment.

Now that the Sellwood Bridge has been shifted 60 feet to the north and refortified, Kafoury is busy overseeing construction of the new bridge, a project far from what the Multnomah Country Commissioner normally focuses on: human services.

“There was a steep learning curve, but I’m not building the bridge myself. I appreciate the civil engineers,” Kafoury joked.

“I like that this project is tangible. You can visually see the project progress, and at end of it you have a concrete and steel structure.”

Kafoury started her political career in 1998 when she was elected to the Oregon State Legislature, where she served in the House for five years. Kafoury said that when she first ran for office, the first fundraising letter she sent went to all her Whitman classmates and fellow alumni, who rallied to her cause and chipped in.

“Liz helped me with the fundraising. I was impressed by the turnout. We got an amazing response.”

Kafoury also credits Whitman for helping her develop the communication skills required for her job, where she must converse with engineers and construction crews while also working toward her goal of ending poverty. Managing disparate interests might seem strange for a public servant who majored in English.

“Everyone asks, ‘What the heck can you do with an English degree?’ I asked this of myself after I graduated. But my English degree comes in handy in so many different ways. Having the ability to communicate is a lost art.”

Deborah Kafoury ’89 tours the bride site

Kafoury was destined to graduate from Whitman. Her grandmother, step-grandfather, mother, father, uncle and cousin all attended Whitman. She credits the college for helping her build numerous, lasting relationships.

“The campus is so small, you meet everyone. And they are from all different walks of life.”

Smith-Currie is one of those friends. From working together in Washington, D.C. as legislative aides, to running campaigns, to working on the Sellwood Bridge Project, the friendship they started at Whitman has helped propel their political careers.

“The Whitman experience is unique,” Smith-Currie said. “Walla Walla is a small town, so you are immersed in the culture of the school. You meet so many people at a level that you wouldn’t if you were going to college in a big city, where you often leave campus. The connections you make at Whitman are strong.”

Kafoury and Smith-Currie believe these connections and friendships are an important part of the college experience.

“Nearly every job I’ve gotten was due to Whitman alumni who spoke up for me," said Smith-Currie. "Those connections made a difference throughout my career. Deborah being one of them.”

While Smith-Currie is grateful to Whitman for introducing her to Kafoury, the policy advisor also credits Whitman for helping her succeed at the sometimes “whack-a-mole” aspect of her work.

“When I started on this project, I knew nothing about bridges other than I appreciated them for crossing over large bodies of water. The key skill set, which I developed at Whitman, is being able to synthesize a huge problem into manageable pieces in a way that people can understand what you’re talking about.”