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Yes, Virginia, it IS safe to cross the Sellwood Bridge

FROM THE EDITOR
by: Eric Norberg,

Early in March, the Multnomah County Supervisor responsible for Inner Southeast Portland and the area embraced by the Sellwood Bridge, Maria Rojo de Steffey, announced publicly that she was afraid to cross the Sellwood Bridge. Some assumed at the time that she made the surprising statement to dramatize the need for Gresham, Troutdale, and Maywood Park to join all the other cities in Multnomah County in approving a vehicle registration override fee to fund the repair of all the bridges in the county for which the county has responsibility.

One wag suggested that the remark perhaps explained why de Steffey, a Northwest Portland resident, is so seldom seen in this part of her district. Be that as it may, the statement was surprising - because in intensive engineering studies the bridge has been found over and over again to be safe for use, as long as a 10-ton-per-vehicle limit is in place. Since that limit was imposed, they find, the ongoing deterioration of the bridge has stopped.

What has not stopped, of course, is the ancient landslide which continues to creep downhill in the area of where the west end of the bridge connects to Macadam, so ongoing repairs to the west end ramp will be required until the bridge is replaced. And, too, TriMet buses and Portland fire engines cannot use the bridge because of the weight restriction, and sometime that needs to be resolved as well.

But the bridge is safe for smaller motor vehicle traffic. So every study done till now has shown, and every regular bridge inspection has verified. Yet somewhat alarmingly, two other County Commissioners have publicly announced that they are willing to join de Steffey in closing the bridge anyway. This would be an irresponsible step in the absence of any engineering evidence suggesting a reason to do so. The two other commissioners in question are Lonnie Roberts and Lisa Naito.

It appears that perhaps some of this sudden concern traces back to the collapse last August 1st in St. Paul, Minnesota, of the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River. Certainly, the bridge structure of the Sellwood Bridge does seem to resemble that one, and that one was rated higher on the federal 'sufficiency' scale.

There are two very important differences.

First, the Minnesota bridge was cantilevered - with no pillars to support it between one end and the other. The Sellwood Bridge does have support pillars to hold it up.

Second, the ten-ton limit on the Sellwood Bridge was set at a level that the bridge can support. A federal investigation of the Minnesota bridge collapse released on March 17th makes dramatically clear that the reason for the collapse was that it was severely overloaded.

The National Transportation Safety Board found that, because the bridge was undergoing repairs, in addition to the normal traffic load at the time of collapse, there were nearly 200 tons of rock and sand parked on it - and at a critical, narrow place on the bridge which was the weakest point. And in addition to all those materials, there also were 100 tons of cement mixers and other construction materials on the bridge too.

It's no wonder it went down.

The Sellwood Bridge, built in 1925, remains absolutely safe for the traffic it currently is allowed to carry, and county engineers promise that if any further significant deterioration is found in the biennial detailed inspections the weight limit will be lowered further, or the bridge will be closed.

Any thought by the County Commissioners of closing it now is absolutely unjustified by the engineering facts. And we feel commissioners publicly raising unjustified fears about the bridge, for whatever reason, is reprehensible. To quote President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an entirely different context, it appears all we have to fear in this case is fear itself. NOT the bridge!

We continue to seek the replacement of the bridge, of course, because it serves an important need for Portland and Multnomah County residents, regardless of whether it also serves needs of those from other counties, and because we need to deal with getting the west end bridge ramp off a creeping landslide and to make it possible for fire engines and TriMet buses to be able to cross it.

But in the meantime, it IS safe to use. And its condition is being closely monitored for any change.

One thing we would like to see done, though, is a stronger and clearer effort to keep large trucks that weigh over ten tons off the bridge.

It is illegal for them to be there, but residents along Tacoma Street in Sellwood will tell you that several large trucks cross the bridge nearly every day. In some cases, it may be driver carelessness, inattentiveness, or unfamiliarity with the area that gets them onto Tacoma westbound - and it is almost impossible for large and long trucks to avoid crossing the bridge once on Tacoma, since they usually are too large to be able to make the tight turns off Tacoma onto cross streets.

But undoubtedly in some cases it is a deliberate violation for convenience - to avoid a long detour over the Ross Island Bridge to reach some point on Macadam Avenue, for example.

We have discussed the matter with the Portland Police, but they don't have the resources to lurk to catch any such drivers who may happen to turn up at whatever odd hour of the day.

It would be a good idea for citizens observing these violations to note the license plate numbers of the offending trucks to report to the police - and also record the information about the owners of the trucks and contact them. In many cases, the owners of the trucks will take action to prevent a repetition of the mistake by their drivers to avoid the legal and public relations problems that could result, especially if a vigilant effort were made to call attention to each violation.

This sort of volunteer citizen action worked in ridding Sellwood of a video billboard which otherwise was legal; it should work even better when company trucks are caught doing something illegal.

In the meantime, though, don't let alarmist comments from County Commissioners keep you off the Sellwood Bridge - as long as whatever you are driving is under ten tons in weight, you're perfectly safe at this point in time.