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Sullivans Gulch Trail waits to get on track

'Expressway for bikes' would be major east-west connection
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT One member of a new city advisory panel envisions the Sullivan's Gulch bicycle trail and pedestrian path, proposed north of the Banfield Freeway, as a future expressway for bicycle commuters. 

Imagine you're stuck on the Banfield Freeway during rush hour, gazing to the north as bicycle commuters whiz past.

Might you consider biking to work next time?

That's what city officials and neighborhood activists hope, as they begin work on a $224,000 project to plan a five-mile Sullivan's Gulch Trail north of the MAX and Union Pacific rail lines that hug the freeway.

'I almost see it as an expressway for bicycling,' says Brad Perkins, one of a handful of activists who lobbied for the money, and recently was appointed to a new advisory committee to help prepare the concept plan.

The bicycle and pedestrian trail, which first appeared on city and regional wish lists in 1996, would provide a vital east-west link between the Interstate 205 bike and pedestrian trail and the Eastbank Esplanade along the Willamette River.

A speedy bike route linking downtown to the Gateway, Hollywood and Lloyd districts is the kind of project the city needs if it hopes to meet its lofty goals to triple bike commuting and slash carbon emissions. It's no stretch to envision speedy bicyclists beating the commute times of motorists slogging along the Banfield.

To gauge potential use of the bikeway, look at the freeway, says Paul Smith, transportation planning manager for the Portland Bureau of Transportation. 'It's the same kind of travel demand, if you will,' says Smith, who is managing the project.

A pipe dream for years, the Sullivan's Gulch Trail project is moving into high gear. The $224,000 in regional transportation funds for the feasibility study and concept plan was approved in 2007, but the money wasn't released until late May. The city recently hired consultant CH2M Hill of Portland to plot the alignment, work with affected property owners and help estimate construction costs. The citizens advisory committee got to work last week.

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City of Portland Archives, Oregon/A2009-009.1458 • Sullivan's Gulch, shown here in 1932 looking east from Northeast 15th Avenue, was used for freight trains back then, and as a place for Depression-era homeless people to camp. Later, the Banfield Freeway was built and then the first MAX line. Now the city hopes to construct a bicycle and pedestrian path in Sullivan's Gulch, though the city may have to strike a deal with Union Pacific, which owns rights of way north of its freight line.

Missing player

One entity not on board is Union Pacific Railroad, and it figures to be a central player in the project.

Union Pacific's Graham line north of the Banfield is part of a transcontinental freight line starting at the Port of Portland and stretching to the eastern United States. The rail company owns a 30- to 50-foot deep swath of land north of its tracks. A 2004 study of the Sullivan's Gulch Trail by Portland State University urban studies students estimated that the railroad owned about three-quarters of the land needed for the trail, though the city may wind up building higher up the gulch's slope, farther from the tracks.

Union Pacific denied the city access to its land for preliminary surveys of a potential alignment. 'It is the official policy of the Union Pacific Railroad nationwide to not allow a trail to be located longitudinally within their right of way,' Smith says.

This will be a tough corridor to build on, partly because the city doesn't control most of the land it needs, Smith says. 'That's a big one,' he says. 'We're talking about wanting to put something on other people's property.'

Union Pacific turned down a chance to put one of its people on the advisory committee, though the city will communicate directly with the railroad about the project's progress, Smith says.

Perkins, a real estate agent, says the city will have to trade something Union Pacific wants, such as helping it secure a better alignment for a curved stretch of its Portland track that forces trains to slow down.

'That's the language you have to speak with them,' Perkins says. 'You can't make a deal with Union Pacific if you aren't giving them something.'

Union Pacific also has proposed a $75 million modernization of its Brooklyn Yard in Southeast Portland, and the city could gain some leverage with the railroad by helping that project ease past neighbors' concerns and a federal lawsuit.

Union Pacific declined to discuss the Sullivan's Gulch trail issue. Instead, Aaron Hunt, the company's corporate and media relations director for western states, emailed a brief statement.

'Portland is a critical part of our network and is key to our ability to provide service to numerous customers in Oregon and the broader Pacific Northwest,' Hunt wrote. 'In that light, we are unable to allow recreational activities on our right of way due to the safety and operational efficiency risks they present.'

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Could build in segments

City staff stressed that these projects can take a long time, and they say they don't need to have all the pieces in place before construction begins. The city could build the Sullivan's Gulch Trail in chunks, as land and money are available, Smith says.

'Just to put this in perspective, the Eastbank Esplanade took 16 years to construct,' says Sarah Coates Huggins of Portland Parks and Recreation, which is teaming with the city transportation bureau on the gulch trail project.

The Springwater Corridor, which connects the Eastbank Esplanade to Sellwood, Milwaukie, Gresham and Boring, still has missing links where bicyclists are diverted onto city streets and then rerouted back to the trail.

Though the flat area along the Union Pacific line might be the cheapest to build on, the city prefers to build the trail higher up the gulch so it can more easily connect to city streets. The city owns some land along the corridor that could be used for parts of the trail, such as between Grand Avenue and 16th, and between 69th and 82nd avenues, says Denver Igarta of the transportation bureau.

In all, more than 100 property owners have land along the potential route, Huggins says.

One of those is Dan Lerch-Walters, whose home on Northeast Multnomah Street includes a deep backyard that stretches down the gulch to abut the railroad's property. He is using some goats to keep weeds in check, and would love to make his land available for the Sullivan's Gulch Trail.

About five years ago, Lerch-Walters joined a handful of other trail advocates to form the Sullivan's Gulch Trail Committee and keep the idea alive. One of the original members was Morgan Will, a former PSU urban planning student who helped secure money to do the first trail study, a PSU master's degree project, in 2004.

The citizens committee lobbied Metro's regional Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation to supply money for the concept plan in 2007, and raised matching money for the city. The bulk of the funding came from federal money granted for the Regional Transportation Improvement Program.

The gulch is a natural transportation corridor, Lerch-Walters says, a corridor scoured out by theMissoula Flood thousands of year ago. He sees no reason a trail can't be operated safely alongside the railroad.

The Eastbank Esplanade connects to downtown via a stretch along the Steel Bridge, next to Union Pacific freight trains.

The gulch is largely weed-infested, sometime frequented by homeless people. 'We want to make it safer,' Lerch-Walters says. 'We want to make it hospitable.'

City officials don't want to attach a dollar sign to the project until they get a sense of the alignment and the cost of acquiring rights of way. Lerch-Walters figures it will cost at least $5 million, but he says it will be worth it.