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Sellwood span's still up in air

TRIB TOWN • As new routes are pondered, advocates for saving bridge keep at it
by: JIM CLARK, Built on the cheap 81 years ago, the Sellwood Bridge has design drawbacks and structural problems. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be saved, according to those who say repair of the bridge is just as much of an option as building a new one.

Reality is sinking in for residents and business owners in Southeast Portland about how replacing the Sellwood Bridge will disrupt their neighborhood.

Condominiums and office buildings all stand in the paths of the new span and would have to be partially, if not completely, demolished. The potential impact on property has raised questions about whether Multnomah County should rehabilitate the bridge, rather than build a new one - an idea proposed by respected transit advocate Jim Howell.

Multnomah County will hold an open house Wednesday to discuss five possible alignments for the new bridge and take suggestions from the public. The routes were conceived by CH2M Hill, an engineering firm serving as a consultant on the project, and are located slightly south and north of, as well as at the span's current location.

All bridge alignments keep the current east approach at Tacoma Street, but land at different locations on the west side of the Willamette River with the option for signaled or nonsignaled interchanges.

A graphic rendering of the bridge alignments also shows the nearby buildings that could be affected by the different routes.

For example, one route just south of the current bridge would run through the Riverpark condominiums, some of which are on the market for $1.2 million.

Another route has the bridge veering north at Southeast Sixth Avenue and Tacoma Street, saving the condominiums, but resulting in the demolition of a triangle-shaped office building that is under construction.

All of these options are unnecessary, according to Howell, a retired TriMet planner. He says the county has spent years ignoring the obvious solution: just fix the bridge.

'They wouldn't be having the problems that they're having now, trying to figure out where to put the new bridge,' Howell said.

Cash crunch hurt from start

When the Sellwood Bridge was built 81 years ago, it was an afterthought in a large construction project that also involved the construction of the Burnside and Ross Island bridges.

The bridge projects were going overbudget so, after public outcry, bridge designer Gustav Lindenthal built the Sellwood Bridge for only $541,000. It was the bare minimum for a bridge: two narrow lanes, no shoulders and just one 4-foot sidewalk.

The bridge's west approach was built on an unstable hillside that is in slow, constant motion, putting pressure on the bridge and causing it to crack.

In June 2004, bridge inspectors discovered major cracks on the east and west approaches. They reinforced the bridge and banned vehicles heavier than 10 tons, which rerouted 94 daily TriMet bus trips until a permanent solution was found.

Howell says the county's response should have been to shut down the bridge to repair it, which means re-engineering and rebuilding the west approach to account for the sliding land, and reinforcing the east approach.

Howell says the deteriorating deck also can be fixed.

'What we proposed all along is they put the wider deck for cars and put the pedestrians on a lower deck,' Howell said.

Rehabilitating the Sellwood Bridge is still on the table, said Mike Pullen, Multnomah County spokesman. Pullen is a mediator for the community task force that will make a recommendation next year to decision-makers about a bridge solution that reflects the public's needs.

Few bridge fans speak up

As far as Howell's recommendations, Pullen worries about the safety of bicyclists and pedestrians on a deck beneath the bridge. Another concern is the cost.

'This project is going to be expensive, but we want to keep considering saving it until it doesn't make any sense,' Pullen said.

One expense, Pullen notes, is for a temporary bridge that will cost $10 million to $20 million.

'I think a temporary bridge is a waste of money,' Howell said. 'Bite the bullet and go to the Ross Island Bridge.'

So far, Howell is one of the few voices advocating the rehabilitation of the old Sellwood Bridge. Because it lacks historical or architectural significance, neighborhood representative John Fyre says he hasn't heard any sentimentality over the bridge.

'I haven't heard many people who want to save it,' he said. 'My focus is on the neighbors, and I'd like to see the bridge curve to the north to avoid the condominiums.'

The five bridge alignments can be viewed on the official project Web site at www.SellwoodBridge.org, or at the open house, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Sellwood Middle School gym, 8300 S.E. 15th Ave.

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