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Bridge troubles the waters

Backers say new I-405 crossing needed; foes see better uses for cash
by: L.E. BASKOW, Afternoon traffic flows along Interstate 405. The City Council soon will vote on whether to move the old Sauvie Island Bridge to Northwest Flanders Street over I-405, despite the fact that four bridges already cross the freeway near there.

The idea of building a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge over Interstate 405 in Northwest Portland has turned into a fight over conflicting visions of the city's future.

It is controversial because many other crossings already exist on both sides of the proposed location on Northwest Flanders Street. The other crossings include four bridges over I-405 and 11 streets that run under it.

In addition, the controversy is being heightened by the idea of using the old Sauvie Island Bridge, pushing the projected cost from $3.8 million to $5.5 million. The Sauvie Bridge will be removed later this year after the bridge Multnomah County is building to the island opens.

Advocates for the bridge - called the Flanders Street Crossing - argue that the existing crossings are either too unsafe or inconvenient for pedestrians and bicycle traffic, which are alternative forms of transportation considered essential to fighting climate change.

They also argue that reusing the old Sauvie Island Bridge will demonstrate Portland's commitment to recycling and green technology.

'The bridge is a symbol of the commitment we're willing to make to be a leader in the movement to build greener cities,' said Patricia Gardner, an architect who serves as the land-use committee chairwoman of the Pearl District Neighborhood Association.

Opponents - including Mayor Tom Potter - argue that the project is a luxury that will divert limited funds from more basic projects, such as filling potholes.

'Tom's No. 1 concern is the city's priorities,' said Potter press aide John Doussard. 'These are the wrong priorities.'

The City Council appears poised to approve the project. A majority of the council - commissioners Sam Adams, Randy Leonard and Dan Saltzman - have submitted an ordinance authorizing the project that will be heard Wednesday. It caps the cost of acquiring and moving the bridge at $3.9 million.

The ordinance also puts the contract for installing the bridge over the freeway to be put out to bid. The final vote is scheduled for May 7.

Even if the council approves the project, however, the debate is likely to continue for months - if not years - to come. It has already become an issue in the mayor's race because it is being championed by Adams and opposed by his major opponent, businessman Sho Dozono, who echoes Potter's criticisms.

Despite the attacks, Adams is remaining firm in his support of the project, justifying it on numerous grounds, from increasing pedestrian and bicycle safety to historic preservation.

'I understand the risks of pushing this project forward while running for mayor, but I believe it is the right thing to do,' Adams said.

An idea gains momentum

According to Gardner, the idea of building a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over I-405 at Flanders first surfaced about six years ago. At that time, she was serving on an advisory committee trying to figure out how to make Burnside Street less of a barrier between downtown and the Pearl District.

The major thoroughfare between Northwest and Southwest Portland has long been considered dangerous for both bicyclists riding it and anyone trying to cross it.

One idea that quickly gained traction on the committee was giving bicyclists a safer way across I-405 - a route pedestrians could use, too. This idea was pursued even though three other bridges cross I-405 within five blocks of Burnside - at Northwest Couch, Everett and Glisan streets.

As Gardner sees it, none of these three bridges is any safer than Burnside. All have on or offramps to I-405 that cross the existing crosswalks and bicycle paths. In addition, the sidewalks on all four bridges are narrower than the current 10-foot city minimum standard. Some are only 2 feet wide.

'Everyone who crosses these bridges can tell you how dangerous they feel, especially at rush hours,' Gardner said.

The committee eventually chose Flanders Street for a new pedestrian and bicycle bridge, in part because it passes just north of the dense, mixed-use Brewery Blocks in the Pearl District.

Although every street from Johnson north to Thurman actually passes under I-405, Gardner argues that is a long detour for pedestrians and bicyclists trying to get closer to Burnside.

'What kind of a message does it send if bicyclists and pedestrians are expected to go blocks out of their way?' Gardner asked. 'How does that encourage people to get out of their cars?'

The idea of the Flanders crossing was approved by the City Council in 2002 as part of the Burnside-Couch Couplet plan that could reduce traffic on Burnside through a variety of means, including turning a portion of Northwest Couch into a one-way street and running a Portland streetcar line on several blocks of both of them.

The committee originally recommended that the city build a 15-foot-wide concrete bridge over I-405 at Flanders. That is the maximum width for such a bridge allowed by the federal government over its freeways.

But then a few years ago, Multnomah County announced it would sell the old Sauvie Island Bridge as part of its project to build a new one.

'Some of us thought, 'Wouldn't that be cool if we could buy the bridge for $1 and move it to Flanders?' ' Gardner said.

In fact, when the Portland Office of Transportation researched the idea, they realized such a relocation could be done. The federal width restriction applied only to new bridges. A loophole allows the 26-foot-wide Sauvie Bridge to be installed over I-405.

'At that point, it became clear moving the Sauvie Island Bridge was the best alternative,' Gardner said.

The cost difference eventually was determined to be $1.7 million - $3.8 million for a new bridge versus $5.5 million for relocating the original Sauvie Island Bridge. Convinced the additional cost was worth it, the Pearl District Neighborhood Association endorsed the relocation idea in spring 2006.

A turnaround in thinking

Adams did not immediately embrace the plan when he was assigned to PDOT in mid-2005.

'I was skeptical,' he said.

But Adams changed his mind after learning more about the high rate of serious bicycle-automobile accidents on the existing bridges - 20 in 10 years - and seeing how strongly the surrounding neighborhoods supported it.

Now he is asking the council to fund the $5.5 million project from a variety of sources: $2 million in redevelopment funds from the River District Urban Renewal Area that includes the Pearl District; $2 million from Transportation System Development Charges collected throughout the city; $1 million from a federal transportation program intended to preserve and enhance historical, cultural and environmental assets; and $500,000 from city general-fund dollars he hopes the council will approve as part of a larger transportation safety and environmental improvement program in next year's budget.

Community supporters also are promising to raise $500,000 for such added amenities as lighting on the bridge.

'We have people willing to write out checks for thousands of dollars right now,' she said.

Opposition to either version of the project was relatively muted until March 31, when Potter sent a memo to the other council members questioning the need for the entire project, given the city's other transportation needs.

Although the transportation development and federal funds can be spent in other parts of the city, the urban renewal funds can only be spent in the River District.

'Does the need for this bridge outweigh other capital transportation requests we currently have?' Potter wrote. 'Crossing I-405 does not appear to be an immediate problem for bikes or pedestrians given that there are currently two overpasses on either side of Flanders - one on Everett, another on Glisan.'

Potter's memo also questioned whether the high cost of using the Sauvie Island Bridge was worth it.

'Building a new, 15-foot-wide bridge would cost approximately $1.5 million less than using the 30-foot Sauvie Bridge,' Potter wrote, using a figure before the most recent cost estimate.

'Are there mitigating safety factors or other concerns that justify the much greater costs at a time when the economy is slowing? Is there any documentation on how the preference for the wider bridge was reached?'

The issue then got picked up by Dozono in his race against Adams for mayor. During several recent joint appearances, Dozono has declared that he is against the project, saying it is an example of the city's misplaced priorities.

At an April 14 debate sponsored by Portland Spaces magazine, Dozono said the bridge was not needed because Johnson runs under I-405 just four blocks north of Flanders. He also said the council should think about the broader needs of the city. Dozono repeated his objections four days later at the mayoral debate sponsored by the City Club of Portland.

Then and now, Adams defends his commitment to the entire city, noting that half of the $11 million in new transportation safety spending approved in this year's budget is being spent on the east side of Portland, including 82nd and 122nd avenues.

Adams also argues that reusing the old Sauvie Island Bridge will be the largest recycling program in city history.

'This is a city that is willing to spend more on green and historic buildings because we value the environment,' he said.

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Mayor Tom Potter responded Thursday with a statement on the proposed Sauvie Island Bridge ordinance:

The debate isn't about sustainability, our commitment to bicyclists and pedestrians, or safety. The debate is about our priorities and how we spend at least $5.5 million when our streets need basic maintenance, and some neighborhoods still can't get sidewalks built.

This bridge will give the Pearl District three overpasses in a three-block span - while Cully still waits for sidewalks. And while one accident anywhere is one accident too many, the N.W. Flanders site is not on PDOT's list of dangerous intersections for either autos, bikes or pedestrians.