By Delaney Neal
(Aug. 18, 2021) The Burnside Bridge forms a crucial link in Portland: It's where Burnside crosses the Willamette River, and provides a gateway to downtown and the Central Eastside. Multnomah County owns and manages the bridge, and has proposed a replacement that could provide an emergency response lifeline for the region in the event of a catastrophic earthquake.
Although construction of the new, earthquake-ready Burnside Bridge will not start for a few years, Multnomah County, with assistance from the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), is hard at work finding ways to make the most of the limited budget, and are looking for input from the public.
On Tuesday, July 13, Megan Neill, the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project manager with Multnomah County, presented at the Planning and Sustainability Commission on cost-cutting measures being explored to help the project fit its budget. She was joined by PBOT Capital Project Manager Patrick Sweeney, Rachel Hoy with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, and Jeff Heilman from Parametrix.
Later in the day, PBOT and County staff, along with HDR project manager Steve Drahota gave a similar presentation to a joint meeting of PBOT’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory committees. Multnomah County and PBOT are working closely together on this project, with PBOT representing the city’s interests and managing aspects of the project with other city bureaus while the county leads the planning and implementation.
The Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project was originally estimated to cost $800 million or more. With last year’s failure of Ballot Measure 26-218, which would have funded regional transportation projects like this one, planners are looking at ways to drastically reduce costs. With assistance from the city, the county has secured $300 million for the project, but is aggressively pursuing more, including recently applying for a federal U.S. Department of Transportation Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) grant.
Multnomah County has decided to move forward with the “Long Span Replacement Alternative,” an alternative originally selected before they began to consider cost-cutting measures. The alternative has longer spans east and west of the center lift span with fewer piers in the river and in liquifiable soil areas that are prone to slide in a major seismic event. The project’s primary goals include seismic resiliency, emergency response, and regional recovery in the event of an earthquake. This is in addition to addressing long-term needs for the transportation system while taking equity and fiscal responsibility into account.
To meet these objectives, there are several things they won’t consider in order to cut costs. For instance, they will keep all seismic design criteria in place. They will also make sure Portland Streetcar can still run on the bridge in the future. Furthermore, all combined bicycle and pedestrian facilities will remain at least 14-feet wide and they will keep the “crash-worthy” barrier between the vehicles lanes and the space for pedestrians and people biking.
Some of the cost-cutting measures being considered are changes to the bridge width and the length of the approaching spans. They may also cut costs by reducing impacts to nearby properties, or finding alternate connections to the Skidmore MAX station and the Eastbank Esplanade. They will also be looking at reducing the budget for urban design and explore different ways of constructing the bridge.
Reducing the width of the bridge is the greatest way to reduce costs, say project managers. To achieve this, they would reduce the number of vehicle lanes from five to four, maintaining at least 14 feet of bicycle and pedestrian space in each direction. Because keeping an eastbound bus-only lane on the bridge is a priority, they are studying having one westbound lane and three eastbound lanes, one of which would be a bus-only lane. See some different options below.
The replacement bridge has three segments – the western girder long span, the center lift span, and the eastern cable-stayed or tied arch long span. The western girder long span would reduce the existing rows of columns in Waterfront Park from four to two. The center span is the section of the bridge that opens to allow tall ships to pass under the bridge. The center span could be a bascule lift (similar to what is there now) or a lift span (similar to the Steel or Hawthorne Bridges).
For the eastern long span, the county is considering a cable-stayed and a tied-arch alternative. The columns for a tied-arch long span could have an impact on the Burnside Skatepark under the east side of the bridge.
After the presentation, members of the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC) shared their thoughts and asked questions about the plan. Commissioner Steph Routh said that the connection from the bridge to the Eastbank Esplanade is important to the future of the city and that proposed public elevators are no substitute for ramps that all people can use. Erica Thompson, a PSC commissioner, asked about the project’s alignment with the city’s Climate Action Plan, since seismic resiliency is the primary objective of the project. Jeff Heilman clarified that while seismic resiliency is the main purpose, climate impact and consistency with the Climate Action Plan were some of several factors guiding decisions when evaluating the alternatives.
Valeria McWilliams, another commissioner, asked how sustainability was shaping the bridge construction. Megan Neill explained they are trying to achieve a gold-level certification in the Greenroads sustainability ratings system for the project. Neill added that they are following sustainability best practices as verified by an outside organization. Sustainability will be an important factor in the next steps of the process as well, when the design is finalized and building materials are selected.
Members of the city’s bicycle and pedestrian advisory committees also shared their thoughts about the project. Committee Member David Stein mentioned the importance of the connection from the bridge to the Eastbank Esplanade. David said that public elevators are no substitute for well-designed ramps, and an ideal connection would have ramps, elevators and stairs. Reza Farhoodi, a Bicycle Advisory Committee member, asked why the planners waited until it was time to cut costs to consider having only one westbound vehicular lane, as there is much less westbound traffic than eastbound on the bridge.
County spokesperson Mike Pullen explained they had hoped to provide more space for all modes of transportation and thus initially planned for two westbound lanes, in addition to bike and pedestrian space. Several members of both committees were excited about one potential solution: a reversible lane which would allow more flexibility for vehicular traffic and transit around peak hours.
Another committee member asked about the earthquake readiness of other bridges in Portland. Mike Pullen and Steve Drahota explained that while the more recently built Sellwood Bridge and Tilikum Crossing are built to modern earthquake standards, other factors may make them difficult to use in the event of an earthquake. For instance, the western entrance to the Sellwood Bridge is in an area of Highway 43 prone to landslides.
This means it could take time to clear such a landslide after an earthquake and make the bridge accessible. Further, while Tilikum Crossing bridge structure is seismically resilient, the east and west approaches to the bridge structure are built on land that could settle in an earthquake, potentially taking the bridge out of service until the approaches can be repaired after a severe tremor.
The new Burnside Bridge is being built to be usable immediately after an earthquake. This ensures emergency services can access both sides of the Willamette River. It would also be built to a higher seismic standard than required, and will be strong enough to accommodate heavy vehicles. These are standards more typical for freight routes, but are part of this project so that the bridge could be crossed by the kind of heavy equipment needed to clear rubble and debris immediately after an earthquake.
This project is still in the environmental planning stages. A final federal decision on the plan is not expected until summer 2022. Design would continue through at least 2025, when construction would hopefully begin. By 2030, Portland should have a new Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge!
Watch the July 13 meeting of the Planning and Sustainability Commission here. (Video starts with the agenda item at 44:50)
Delaney Neal is a Communications Assistant with PBOT Communications & Public Involvement and a student at Reed College in Southeast Portland.