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FROM THE EDITOR

DON'T FEAR THE SELLWOOD BRIDGE!


by: FILE PHOTO BY ERIC NORBERG - In this photo taken on August 3, 2007, looking east from the sidewalk on the west-end approach ramp to the Sellwood Bridge, the angular changes in the roadbed, and the popped expansion joint visible in the foreground, tell mutely of the huge pressure an ancient landslide was placing on the west end ramp - compressing it between the creeping shore and the unmoving bridge.Over the last decade or so, as the need to replace the Sellwood Bridge was made ever clearer to the entities that would have to fund its replacement, drivers read in the papers and heard on the news how the current bridge ranked 2 on the governmental sufficiency scale of 100.

This did not ever mean it was about to splash down into the Willamette River, though some feared that’s what it meant – it just meant that the west end ramp condition which required splints and a weight reduction as a palliative precaution made it a “must-replace”, and soon.

Today, with the old bridge slid north onto new supports, and with a new temporary west-end ramp, the historic bridge is sturdier and safer than it has been in many, many years. (The main span never was regarded as insufficient, and the chief reason it was decided to replace the whole bridge instead of just the approach ramps is that the bridge was too narrow when it was built, and is even more so today. And there isn’t much room for pedestrians and bicyclists, either.)

All of which should, and hopefully does, give you more confidence as you cross the bridge today.

But now that the bridge has been moved northward to allow construction of the replacement bridge where the old bridge was, merchants in Inner Southeast are picking up vibes of worry from the west side of the river – apparently some of their regular customers no longer feel it prudent to cross the bridge.

So let us address these former visitors to our fair eastern Willamette shore for just a moment. We are talking to them, but you can listen in.

Here’s the thing. The Sellwood Bridge on its new supports, and especially with the much sturdier west side approach ramp, is much stronger than it was even decades ago. If you crossed it then, you can cross it now! And you can do it with peace of mind.

A little history: When the Sellwood Bridge was opened in the mid 1920’s, almost immediately the west end ramp started showing hints of twisting and compressing – but it was not until around 1990 that engineers finally figured out what was going on.

The bridge had been built where it was because it happened to be the narrowest spot in the river in the vicinity, making a shorter bridge feasible. Turns out it was narrower there because a prehistoric landslide – one of many in the region – had come down the west hillside at that point, and the slide debris had gone into the river narrowed it there. That landslide is still creeping to this very day. Consequently, each time the west side ramp had buckled enough to make the up-and-down accordioning of the roadbed obvious, workers would close the road, shorten the ramp a little and straighten it out, and reopen the bridge again. Meantime, under that ramp, support columns were gradually tilting out of vertical, as their footings continued to creep imperceptibly towards the river.

The new Sellwood Bridge will use new technology to stabilize the supports and let the ancient landslide creep right past them without taking them with it. And the temporary west-side ramp on which west-side drivers now embark on the old bridge, are stable and sturdy too, in a way that they never were before.

The actual bridge span is showing its age, but it is still strong and could be used for many years to come. It will become redundant, and will be scrapped when the new bridge opens – but not because there is anything seriously wrong with it. It’s just too narrow for today’s demands.

So, from the merchants of Inner Southeast Portland, here’s an invitation to revel is the new and safer Sellwood Bridge – the old one, still in use – and come on over. You don’t need to wait till they finish building the new one.

They’re hoping to see you soon.