Sellwood Bridge redux
by: Eric Norberg, Framed by members of Multnomah County’s new Sellwood Bridge citizens’ advisory committee, County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey explains at the September 18th meeting that it is her job to help find the money to fix or replace the bridge.

There are those in the area who are puzzled why Multnomah County has painstakingly assembled a large committee of citizens from different areas and with different interests to reconsider issues, concerning the Sellwood Bridge, which had seemed settled.

After all, the bridge has exceeded its life expectancy; tests at a '2' on a federal sufficiency scale of 100; and was not built strong enough to handle the type of traffic it is confronted with today--as the busiest bridge, per lane, in the entire state of Oregon.

Further, recent studies established that it would be cheaper and more effective to replace it than to rehabilitate it. So what's to deliberate about?

The answer is: If federal money is to help resolve the Sellwood Bridge problem--and it isn't likely to be resolved anytime soon, if there isn't any federal money for it--federal standards for qualifying for the money must be met. And standard number one is that all aspects of the project must be determined in a preset public way, without any preconditions already set. So that's why there's a committee, and that's why it has already begun having regular meetings in Sellwood.

At the Monday, September 18th, meeting, panelists and interested members of the public began by hearing an engrossing history of the Sellwood Bridge, presented by local bridge historian (and committee member) Sharon Wood Wortman.

Did you know it is the only known continuous four-truss bridge in the country? That it was the third bridge of a three-bridge project in the mid-1920's, which funded from one bond issue the new Burnside Bridge ($3 million), then the Ross Island Bridge ($2 million), and finally the Sellwood Bridge ($541,000--all that was left)? Did you know that that the old Burnside Bridge approach girders from 1894 were incorporated into both ends of the bridge, making a small part of the bridge 112 years old…?

And panelists on September 18th also heard the details of Metro's 1999 South Corridor Study, which among other things concluded that it would be more expensive to rehabilitate the bridge than to replace it. They then heard the results of a new study by CH2M Hill engineers, showing essentially the same thing. (If a 'signature bridge' of advanced design were chosen for the replacement, though, it would cost far more than any of the other alternatives.)

Residents and especially businesspeople in the Sellwood area will be relieved to learn that all of the alternatives presented included having some way of crossing the river on the Tacoma Street alignment during construction; but one of the reasons a new bridge would be cheaper than rehabbing the old one is that no detour bridge would need to be built while the current bridge was being stripped down and reconstructed. And, the new study suggested, a new bridge would be a better one than any of the rehab designs could be.

In a brief opportunity for public statements, at the September 18th meeting, which took place at the Sellwood Baptist Church at S.E. 11th and Spokane, comments suggested that those from outside the immediate neighborhood seemed to believe a four-lane bridge is needed, while those living near the bridge definitely want it to remain limited to two traffic lanes, especially now that Tacoma Street has been reborn as a neighborhood two-lane street. But even if Tacoma were reconfigured back to four lanes to approach a four-lane bridge, no plan has been advanced as to how four lanes of bridge traffic could be accommodated on the more restricted Macadam Avenue, Highway 43, and especially Taylor's Ferry Road, at the west end.

One visitor advocated a commuter rail link from Clackamas to Washington Counties, and others reminded the committee that the Metro South Corridor Study identified a need for another Willamette River bridge between Sellwood and Oregon City, although the study was unable to find a spot to put it where local political opposition did not prevent it.

One concern about rehabilitating rather than replacing the Sellwood Bridge which did not emerge in the September 18th session was the problem of retaining a bridge built at the west end on a still-creeping ancient landslide. The ongoing buckling of the west end of the bridge is due to this steady creep, and some fear that a major earthquake would cause the slide to go into the river all at once, taking the west end of the bridge with it. Needless to say, there was no awareness of this slide back when the bridge was originally constructed in eleven months in 1925.

Building a new bridge would place the east end again at Tacoma Street, but would skew off at an angle in order to leave the old bridge open during construction--thus making landfall on the west bank significantly north or south of the current bridge, and presumably clear of the prehistoric landslide.

And when this entire process is completed many months from now, what will the committee have accomplished? The task force will simply be recommending the best long-term solution for the bridge. That decision will need to be approved by the Multnomah County Commissioners, the Portland City Council and Metro. And since federal money is involved, the Federal Highway Administration will also need to sign off on the plan.

Sitting in on such committee sessions leads one to suspect that one knows already what the solution is likely to be. But there could be surprises, of course--particularly if those most directly concerned do not find the time to let the county know of their own priorities and desires.

Present at the three-hour September 18th meeting was County Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey, whose assigned jurisdiction includes the Sellwood Bridge. In brief remarks, she told the committee, 'my part is looking for the significant amount of money' which any outcome would require.

The next committee meeting will be 5:30 pm on Monday, October 16th, again at the Sellwood Baptist Church. There will be a public open house to inform and solicit opinions from the residents of the area and the users of the bridge: It will be on Wednesday, October 25th, 5 till 8 pm, at the Oaks Amusement Park Dance Pavilion.

For details and more information, and/or to fill out a survey to communicate your own ideas, go to the Internet website:

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