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County's Sellwood Bridge process getting interesting

Woodstock talk offers update
by: Courtesy of Multnomah County, This composite illustration, showing a map of Sellwood at right and a radar examination of the terrain at the west end of the Sellwood Bridge at the left, reveals two ancient landslides which both narrow the Willamette River, and both of which are still active: One at the west end of the Sellwood Bridge, and the other between Lewis and Clark College and Waverley Golf Club.

Although, as reported in a BEE headline story in December of 2005, initial studies indicated strongly that the existing Sellwood Bridge could not be repaired and would have to be replaced, any hope of obtaining federal funding for resolving the bridge's serious problems requires revisiting all options for the bridge, with 'everything on the table, and all stakeholders involved'.

Thus it is that, last year, Multnomah County--the owner of the 82-year-old bridge-- established a 'Citizens Advisory Committee' to conduct a monthly series of meetings to examine all options for repairing or replacing the bridge, leading to the recommendation of a 'locally preferred alternative' for addressing the bridge's problems, which cause it to be rated a 2 on the 100-point federal scale of bridge sufficiency. That recommendation will eventually be acted upon by a second committee, already empaneled.

The citizens committee began its regular public meetings in Sellwood last fall, with representatives included from every major group using the bridge that the county could think of.

Although the Sellwood-Westmoreland neighborhood is represented by more than one on the committee (John Fyre is the committee member officially representing the SMILE neighborhood association), there are also representatives from areas at the west end of the bridge, from business interests, from commuter interests, and even from the trucking industry--which cannot use the bridge at all at present, due to the 10-ton weight limit.

As part of the outreach process, the county is also taking advantage of opportunities to bring the Bridge's story to the community outside of the committee meetings, and so it was that Mike Pullen of the county appeared in Woodstock on March 5th, at County Bill's restaurant, as the speaker at the regular Monday meeting of the Southeast Portland Rotary Club. He explained the process, and the progress made so far by the committee.

Pullen, who tells THE BEE that the issues being examined starting in March are sufficiently substantive that 'the meetings are getting interesting', announced a general public open house to examine and offer input 7-9 pm on Wednesday, April 4th, at Sellwood Middle School. The subject of the open house is possible alignments and configurations for the bridge.

At this point, Pullen said, rehabilitation of the bridge has not been ruled out, but it develops that repairing it most likely will be more expensive than building a new one, mainly because rehabilitation will require removing the deck and both approaches, and would close the bridge to traffic for many months; a temporary substitute span would have to be built for traffic during that period. Building a new bridge would permit the old one to remain open, handling traffic, till the new one is completed, thus reducing the cost.

Although Sellwood-Moreland sentiment seems to be running strongly toward retaining a two-lane bridge, connecting to a two-lane Tacoma Street, those who use the bridge to commute from Clackamas County locations tend to favor creating a four-lane bridge and thoroughfare. Pullen noted that testimony before the committee has revealed that the current width of Tacoma Street, if returned to a four-lane configuration is too narrow to meet current standards for a four-lane highway.

The 1999 Metro 'South Corridor' study noted that there is no Willamette River bridge between Sellwood and Oregon City, some 12 miles, and the obvious solution for Clackamas County commuters as noted in that report would be a new highway bridge somewhere between the two existing bridges. The obvious place would be at Lake Oswego, where an existing four-lane road connects directly, via Kruse Way, to Interstate 5; but Lake Oswego is strongly opposed to a bridge there, and Milwaukie and Dunthorpe have ruled out bridges in their localities, stalling any such solution.

John Fyre of SMILE has commented that Clackamas County needs to address this deficiency before they should have much standing in trying to build a highway through a Multnomah County neighborhood for their own convenience.

The single most serious cause of the deterioration of the Sellwood Bridge is the ancient, still-creeping landslide upon which the west end of the bridge was inadvertently constructed. The slide was identified only in 1980, and some three feet of the bridge was removed to relieve the crushing pressure that is squashing and twisting the western approach, but the slide keeps moving, and the west ramp is clearly continuing to compress and 'accordion'.

Pullen said the committee has found the bridge could be rehabilitated or rebuilt while still anchored on that slide, which extends a short distance north and a greater distance south of the current western bridgehead, through use of a concrete 'cofferdam' to provide permanent stability, but since the west end of the bridge could be moved up to 500 feet either north or south, according to parameters the committee has accepted, it is possible the western end could be built on stable ground.

If the bridge is to be completely replaced, the new bridge would have to be at an angle to the old one to permit the existing bridge to remain open during the construction.

Pullen noted that a frequent concern presented to him is the fear of driving on the old bridge at all; but he revealed that the 10 ton weight limit now in effect seems to have completely stabilized the deterioration, and that if the bridge's condition worsens, the weight limit will be further reduced, or the bridge will be closed. It is considered completely safe to drive on now, so long as the weight restriction remains in place.