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After much finger-pointing, the Steel Bridge's lower deck reopens - UPDATED

Posted by Michael Andersen (News Editor) on August 13th, 2013 at 9:19 am

Some commuters and exercisers used the upper
sidewalk of the Steel Bridge Tuesday morning.
(Photo: M.Andersen/BikePortland)

Update 3:59 pm: The bridge lower deck is now open, and the city's Diane Dulken writes to confirm that the city, not Union Pacific Railroad, is responsible for the lower-deck cameras related to this closure.

Portlanders' unscheduled trip into the 90s extended into its fourth day Tuesday as the lower deck of the Steel Bridge, built for $10 million in 2001, remained closed due to a camera failure.

City spokeswoman Diane Dulken said Monday that Union Pacific Railroad runs the cameras, and that the problem is UP's. The next morning, UP's California-based spokesman Aaron Hunt said that this was not true, and that the city has been working to repair them. Update: Dulken confirmed, late Tuesday afternoon, that the railroad was correct, and the cameras are the city's responsibility.

Dulken said Tuesday that she had no information about whether Union Pacific had been in contact with the city. She said she wasn't aware of detour signs other than the ones at the Steel Bridge's lower-deck gates themselves.

The cameras are important because they let the on-site bridge lift operator know when people are crossing the bridge's lift span. The cameras have failed in the past, including a one-day closure last year.

About 3,500 people cross the Steel Bridge on bikes daily. Thousands more use it as a foot crossing for transportation or recreation.

"We don't manage the cameras, so we're not quite sure what's going on with those," Dulken said. "It's Union Pacific, and we haven't heard from UP."

Union Pacific, however, disagreed.

"The cameras are the responsibility of the city of Portland," railroad spokesman Hunt wrote in an email Tuesday. "Union Pacific reported that the cameras were not working last Saturday. The city then closed the gates for safety reasons. The city has been working to repair the cameras since that time."

Meanwhile, Portlanders have been taking various strategies to detour across the river.

Kevin Wagoner, a Kaiser Permanente employee who bikes to work daily from southwest Portland, said Tuesday morning that it was a minor annoyance for him, but that he'd seen one man trying to open the bridge's gates himself.

"I was like, 'I don't know if that's a good idea,'" Wagoner said.

Here's a comment from Ted Buehler from yesterday's post on this issue:

Steel Bridge upper deck sidewalks are not suitable for bicycling -- far too narrow to permit safe passage. Bikes require a minimum of 4' width. If you're a skilled rider you can make do with less, but on the Steel Bridge sidewalk there's no margin of error, and any twitch can bump you into the [substandard] railing posts, launch you over the [substandard] low railing and 85' down into the Willamette River.

Best to simply take the lane. I do it regularly, just hang all the way on the right as you're going up to the main span, slow down a bit toward the top to rest up, and wait for a gap in cars. Then scoot out into the middle of the lane and ride at your fastest comfortable speed across the main deck. I take the lane all the way to the bottom on the steep downgrade westbound, and scoot back to the right curb on the downgrade eastbound.

Another commenter, going by Vinney, reflected on Dulken's comments from yesterday afternoon:

In situations like this I always find myself wondering if this would be acceptable if it was a car lane. What would be the city's response then? What would be the reaction if Diane made this statement:

"People crossing the Steel Bridge Monday evening should reroute to another bridge. The bridge has been closed since Saturday evening, when a set of cameras that monitor the crossing stopped functioning. We don't manage the cameras, so we're not quite sure what's going on."

Dulken said she would ask her colleagues if there are any plans to improve communication with the railroad during future closures.

I spent a few minutes on each side of the bridge Tuesday morning to see how people were handling the closure.

There was a steady flow in both directions across the upper deck.
Most people descending to the Eastbank Esplanade rerouted to the south.
Some eastbound travelers hoisted their bikes up the
stairs to the upper deck after encountering the closure.
Others with larger vehicles didn't have that option.

Whatever the cause of this four-day closure, it's an odd situation for a city whose long-term business plan depends on persuading tens of thousands of people and jobs to locate or relocate into the central city and whose official policy documents describe its transportation priorities this way:

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Comments
  • Scott August 13, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Isn't it a ticket able offense to ride bikes on the upper deck sidewalk?

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    • Spiffy August 13, 2013 at 9:40 am

      it's legal.... but as stated the sidewalk is very narrow so use caution...

      and it's probably still faster than trying to take the lane during rush hour when traffic is at a standstill...

      Recommended Thumb up 1

    • boriskat August 13, 2013 at 9:43 am

      I certainly hope not because I do it every day...

      Recommended Thumb up 1

  • Spiffy August 13, 2013 at 9:37 am

    who is Diane Dulken a spokesperson for?

    Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Anne Hawley August 13, 2013 at 9:54 am

    Is the City still counting on BikePortland to somehow make up for their complete lack of signage at the top of the Eastbank ramp, or has that been remedied?

    Recommended Thumb up 12

    • Ian August 13, 2013 at 9:56 am

      As of 8 this morning there was still no sign, although at least the gate is visible from the bridge over the railroad before the ramps.

      Recommended Thumb up 0

      • mezay August 13, 2013 at 1:24 pm

        Was the flashing warning light at the top not in operation?

        Recommended Thumb up 1

        • Denise August 13, 2013 at 3:11 pm

          No it was not

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          • Scott August 14, 2013 at 7:31 am

            Oh wow... Double fail...

            Recommended Thumb up 0

  • q`Tzal August 13, 2013 at 9:57 am

    UPRR has zero motivation to expedite this repair; perhaps an hourly/daily fine should be assessed.

    The only way this will get resolved in a timely manner is for PBOT & ODOT to take responsibility for the current and future physical maintenance of these cameras.
    PBOT can bill UPRR and we can get infrastructure up and running again.

    Recommended Thumb up 11

    • matt picio August 13, 2013 at 10:20 am

      The main issue here is that the Steel is a privately-owned bridge. UPRR isn't under any inherent obligation to keep it open for ANYONE. They have contractual agreements with Trimet and the City of Portland, however, so the real question is what contractual obligation does UPRR have in regards to maintaining access? The issue isn't as cut and dried as many of us believe it is.

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      • q`Tzal August 13, 2013 at 12:43 pm

        The Steel Bridge has always struck me as a "DHS high value target".
        If it is totally incapacitated for over a couple of days it would be a major hit to the city economically.
        We've seen what happens with public transit when it is closed to TriMet: crippling auto traffic and 2-3 hour bus rides.
        Add the effect of a major freight train crossing and we would get even more big trucks on the road.
        Multiply that by months.

        If ever there was a bridge that needs to be replaced it is the Steel Bridge not the CRC. By replace I mean build a modern useful bridge ad close to the current alignment as possible but under local control and leave UPRR to their decrepit rust pile.

        Recommended Thumb up 5

        • Ian C. August 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm

          "If ever there was a bridge that needs to be replaced it is the Steel Bridge not the CRC. By replace I mean build a modern useful bridge ad close to the current alignment as possible but under local control and leave UPRR to their decrepit rust pile."

          That it's so heavily used is a sign of how well it works for how many people and different modes of transportation. I don't see how that shows it needs to be replaced.

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          • q`Tzal August 13, 2013 at 9:57 pm

            It is the main public transportation choke point for TriMet; any problems here radiate instantly through the MAX & bus network immobilizing it.
            Our dependency upon the Steel Bridge is what would also make it an optimal target for malicious actors.
            It is not in any control by any state agency . We the people are dependent upon the magnanimous behavior of a for profit enterprise the owns the bridge. We need it but it is not ours.
            It is old (over 100 years old) and beats out the current CRC's age.

            Recommended Thumb up 1

          • q`Tzal August 14, 2013 at 1:05 am

            It is the main public transportation choke point for TriMet; any problems here radiate instantly through the MAX & bus network immobilizing it.
            Our dependency upon the Steel Bridge is what would also make it an optimal target for malicious actors.
            It is not in any control by any state agency . We the people are dependent upon the magnanimous behavior of a for profit enterprise the owns the bridge. We need it but it is not ours.
            It is old, over 100 years old, which basically means that maintenance requirements are more frequent and more costly.

            Recommended Thumb up 0

            • Scott August 14, 2013 at 7:35 am

              Oh you mean problems like THIS with the linchpin of our transit system?

              "MAX lines disrupted due to a mechanical issue with a train on the Steel Bridge. Shuttle buses running between NW 1st/Davis and the Rose Quarter. Expect delays."

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      • Todd Boulanger August 13, 2013 at 2:20 pm

        Matt you got it. The City should review the easement agreement (or similar document) as to the maintenance responsibilities of each party...unless this was accomplished by a handshake agreement at the upper end of staff the hierarchy, then the small details may never have been hammered out...either way it might be time to refresh and review the "maintenance agreement" to make sure we can keep access to the facility and it is as safe as possible.

        Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Ted Buehler August 13, 2013 at 10:34 am

    As I recall, the Union Pacific was gracious in allowing a bike/ped bridge to be added to the lower deck of their bridge. They had no obligation to do this, and it was the first, or one of the first in the country. & it's still one of the only in the country, certainly of a bridge as large and complex as the Steel.

    It was a terrific bonus for the city to get the lower deck crossing. It's been an integral component to the city's commuter infrastructure. Imagine biking around Portland without the lower deck option. & it was built at a very affordable price tag. It comes with limitations -- tight 90 degree turn at the west end, too-narrow path on the lift span, and frequent lifts.

    The agreement between the city and railroad is probably pretty complicated, but it gives the UP and "out" for anything that goes wrong. That's the way it works if someone wants to add public access to a privately owned bridge. & it's a known fact that things will go wrong on occasion.

    So it shouldn't be unexpected to have the path out of service for a week or two, now and then, as mechanical issues crop up and are dealt with on the railroad's timetable, not the city's.

    ****

    The problem here is that the city appears unwilling to respond appropriately to these known, expected mechanical problems. All roads get closed once in a while, and there's standard ways of putting up orange detour signs to minimize inconvenience and tame increased congestion on alternate routes. None of this has been done here:
    * No marked detour route.
    * No advance warning signs for folks coming down N Vancouver Ave or over on NE Multnomah.
    * No "bikes on bridge deck" signs for the top deck of the steel.

    ****

    If you want to see the city respond better marking detours when bike routes are closed, drop them a note. Something like:

    "Hey, I noticed the Steel Bridge has been closed for a while and there's no detour signs. Can you make a point of putting up advance warning detour signs whenever a bike commuter route is closed? Luv n kisses, your favorite constituent"

    503-823-SAFE
    safe@portlandoregon.gov
    http://www.portlandoregon.gov/novick/

    Recommended Thumb up 23

    • Anne Hawley August 13, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      Thanks, Ted. I sent 'em a nice note.

      Recommended Thumb up 2

    • Todd Boulanger August 13, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      Ted. Well put!

      Recommended Thumb up 0

  • kittens August 13, 2013 at 11:50 am

    Can we move the new PMLR bridge a couple miles downriver to where it is really needed?

    Recommended Thumb up 0

    • Dan V August 13, 2013 at 2:07 pm

      Leave it right where it is; I hate having to go up to the Morrison, then back down to get to Pill Hill (I've seen people taking the lane on the Ross Island Bridge to avoid the extra milage)...

      Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Joseph E August 13, 2013 at 12:22 pm

    "lower deck of the Steel Bridge, built for $10 million in 2001"

    That sounded a little pricey for a moment, until I realized the CRC was supposed to cost $3 billion (probably more). That's 300 times the cost of this crossing, for only 30 times the trips per day.

    The Steel bridge, at 3500 trips a day (or more), has cost less than $1 per trip over the past 12 years. The CRC would cost $10 per trip in that same time-frame, even without cost over-runs.

    Recommended Thumb up 6

  • Peter P. August 13, 2013 at 1:19 pm

    Dream of the 90's? More like nightmare of the 90's. I spent over a year commuting with my son in a trailer on that sidewalk. A lot less traffic then, but peds still had to stand on the railing so I could get by. You also don't want to get hung up on the roadside railing, ouch.

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  • mezay August 13, 2013 at 1:21 pm

    Ted: your points are duly noted.

    One clarification: There is already a "BIKES ON BRIDGE ROADWAY" sign on the top deck of the Steel Bridge.

    Image available in this 2011 BikePortland article:
    http://bikeportland.org/2011/11/03/riding-on-the-steel-bridge-a-tale-of-bike-access-and-anger-61466

    Recommended Thumb up 5

    • Ted Buehler August 13, 2013 at 1:43 pm

      Cool, thanks for the correction. I didn't remember them being there.

      All the more reason, folks, to ride on the bridge deck and not those sidewalks.

      &, thanks for the signs, ODOT!

      Pics from Google Streetview:
      Eastbound http://goo.gl/maps/0cDMZ
      Westbound http://goo.gl/maps/UyzwB

      Ted Buehler

      Recommended Thumb up 2

  • Hillsons August 13, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    How is it that no matter where I'm headed in Portland or what mode of transportation I choose, Union Pacific somehow finds a way to screw me?

    Recommended Thumb up 7

    • q`Tzal August 13, 2013 at 2:02 pm

      The name of our fair city should contain a tip off.
      The "port" in Portland is not merely prosaic, actual freight is moved in and out by big ships.
      Heavy tonnage over land is most cheaply sent by train so it is expected to have disparate rail lines converging upon a port city.
      Add geographic constraints like mountainous terrain or rivers and the routes in and out of a city by rail are themselves highly constrained.

      In reality we don't have a lot of stray rail lines for the size or density of our city.
      The railroad companies' legal protections and century's old corporate inertia insures that railroad companies will be glacially slow to adapt to any change. So naturally we are irritated with them for being generally obtuse.
      Que sera.

      Recommended Thumb up 4

  • Michelle and Jim August 13, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    The bridge just opened a minute ago. We just crossed it.

    Recommended Thumb up 7

  • q`Tzal August 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm

    UPRR: unloaded responsibility for cameras on PBOT, smart move.
    PBOT: Doh!

    Recommended Thumb up 4

  • AndyC of Linnton August 13, 2013 at 11:42 pm

    Wow. Just wow. Really shows our priorities.

    Recommended Thumb up 0

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