Trib Town • Network's length, number of owners make keeping it in shape complex
by:  JIM CLARK, A backhoe brought in during work under an Interstate 5 overpass damaged a set 
of hand-laid steps on a hiking trail nearby. The backhoe, now stuck in wet soil, can’t get back out until after least two weeks of dry weather.

Urban trail advocates are outraged that a contractor with the city's Bureau of Environmental Services damaged a portion of the 40-Mile Loop in Southwest Portland - but the problem may just be a sign of what's to come.

The trail was damaged last month when a massive excavator trying to reach the bottom of a deep ravine just east of George Himes Park rolled over a hand-laid wood and gravel stairway.

The contractor was hired to locate a sewer and water line under an Interstate 5 overpass known as the Iowa Structure, because it sits just west of the end of Southwest Iowa Street.

Although the contractor tried to repair the stairs, one of the people who originally helped build them complains that the work was done wrong.

'They used round pebbles, which is the worst thing you can lay down on a hill,' said Phil Hamilton, construction supervisor for the Trails Committee of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., a nonprofit coalition that serves neighborhood associations in that part of town.

'Because they roll, walkers and runners can slip on them and get hurt.'

The excavator itself got stuck in the wet soil in the bottom of the ravine. It can't be removed until after at least two weeks of dry weather.

'If they had contacted us about this work, we could have told them not to take any heavy equipment down there in the rainy season,' Hamilton said.

Pebbles are out, gravel's in

BES spokesman Linc Mann said his agency was at fault for not notifying anyone associated with the trail of the excavation work before it began.

After learning of the damage, city officials promised to repair the trail after the equipment is removed. Mann said flat gravel was quickly brought in to replace the pebbles.

Mann said the Trails Committee will be consulted and probably involved in the work, although it's unlikely to begin before late April. He did not have a cost estimate.

But the repairs will not keep the trail open forever. The Oregon Department of Transportation is scheduled to rebuild the overpass, beginning in 2010. The work is necessary because the overpass doesn't meet current earthquake standards.

It was built in the 1960s to help carry traffic around the base of the West Hills, long before the trail system became an official city program.

The $45 million project is expected to take about two years, and ODOT officials expect to close the trail during much of that time to prevent anyone from being injured by falling objects.

'Safety is our No. 1 concern,' ODOT spokeswoman Christine Miles said.

Hamilton, however, is hopeful that the closure can be shortened.

'You know how engineers are. They'll say the project is scheduled to last two years so the area has to be closed for two years, instead of just the six-month window when the work will actually be going on overhead,' he said.

The trail that was damaged is officially known as Urban Trail 3. It leads from the Willamette River to Southwest Barbur Boulevard.

It's a long and winding loop

It's also part of the 40-Mile Loop, the name for what's actually a much longer network of trails throughout the metropolitan area.

Coordinated by a nonprofit land trust, the network is intended to eventually allow residents to walk and bicycle throughout Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties.

The network already passes through 13 jurisdictions, including Portland, Multnomah County, the Port of Portland, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, numerous public drainage districts and land owned by the state.

Land-trust officials did not immediately return calls and e-mails for comment on this story.

Glenn Bridger, chairman of the Southwest Neighborhoods board, said he hoped the incident would lead to a better understanding of the importance of trails among all the jurisdictions.

Although Portland Parks and Recreation has been maintaining the trail with the help of volunteers such as Hamilton, Mann and Miles said their agencies weren't sure who to contact about it.

'The problem is, no one really has ownership over the entire trail system,' Bridger said. 'Hopefully, everyone will come to understand these are an important part of the overall transportation system, and we can work together to make sure they are properly maintained.'

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