Guest article: The 12-year struggle to tame the Morrison Bridge

If Phil Goff had his way, his “Greenway Esplanade” concept would have transformed the Morrison Bridge into a biking and walking oasis. It didn’t quite turn out that way.
(Concept drawing by Phil Goff)

This first-person retrospective of the evolution of bikeway improvements on the Morrison Bridge is written by Phil Goff. Goff now lives in Arlington, Mass and is the manager of Alta Planning + Design’s Boston Field Office. He lived in Portland from 1996 to 2004, where he was an active BTA volunteer and a seven-year member of the City of Portland Bicycle Advisory Committee.

Sometime in the coming weeks, construction work on the Morrison Bridge will end and for the first time in history people on bikes will be able to safely cross the bridge.

Temporary facility on the Morrison Bridge, 1997-98.
(Photo: Phil Goff)

Current construction has lasted for about a year — but the struggle to redevelop the bridge as a multi-modal facility began twelve years ago and represents yet another triumph of bike advocacy in Portland.

In 1997, Multnomah County closed the Hawthorne Bridge for a two-year rehabilitation project, which included widening its narrow sidewalks to their current width: 10 feet on each side.

To accommodate the 3000 cyclists wishing to access downtown each day during construction, the County provided a temporary facility on the Morrison Bridge. A ten-foot wide, two-way sidepath on the south side of the bridge was separated from traffic by Jersey barriers.

“My plan called for the elimination of an east-bound car travel lane and the expansion of the five-foot wide south sidewalk into a 25 foot wide esplanade.”

The temporary path worked so well that many thought it should be made permanent. In the spring of 1998, I began a postcard campaign to convince Multnomah County to do just that.

I handed out a thousand postcards to cyclists as they came over the bridge into downtown. Within weeks, nearly five hundred were signed and mailed in. While this got the County’s attention, it did not take long for bridge engineers to determine that the facility was planned for a short life span and was not the appropriate design for the long term.

Graphic of proposed Morrison Bridge path
(Multnomah County, 2004)

The County did, however, agree to submit a $1.5 million Transportation Improvement Project (TIP) request to Metro to fund the design and construction of a permanent facility. While this was a victory of sorts, I soon found out that the bi-annual TIP process was extremely competitive with only one out of three project requests granted the Federal transportation funds.

For the Morrison Bridge rehab project to stand out, a future vision was needed to catch the eyes of the decision makers and to galvanize the advocacy community. Soon after finishing my graduate degree in architecture, I developed a design for the Morrison Bridge and used the drawings as lobbying tools to build support at all levels of government.

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Rather than a facility designed for transportation purposes only—like all of Portland’s other bridges—I envisioned a grand public space on top of the river. A multi-modal greenway esplanade across the Morrison Bridge would connect Waterfront Park with the Eastbank Esplanade which was then under construction.

“But despite the project’s visibility and high ranking by Metro staff 11th hour political maneuvering removed the full construction funding request in order to provide additional money for road and transit projects.”

To achieve this, my plan called for the elimination of an east-bound car travel lane and the expansion of the five-foot wide south sidewalk into a 25 foot wide esplanade. The wide space would be divided into a two-way bike path next to a 15 foot wide strolling space, lined with a continuous planter, intermittent benches and pedestrian-scale lighting.

As a lobbying tool, the “Greenway Esplanade” concept and drawings (see above) helped convince many of the key regional decision makers to support the $1.5 million funding request.

But despite the project’s visibility (The Oregonian published the drawings on two separate occasions) and high ranking by Metro staff (based on project evaluation criteria), 11th hour political maneuvering removed the full construction funding request in order to provide additional money for road and transit projects.

With help from PDOT Commissioner Charlie Hales and Metro Councilor David Bragdon, $200,000 was ultimately granted to the County to complete the project’s first steps: the design and engineering work. In 2001, during the next funding cycle, the process began again. I printed and handed out another thousand postcards, this time addressing them to Rod Monroe, Chair of the Metro Council.

Activists from the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Coalition for a Livable Future, Willamette Pedestrian Coalition and others came to this round of hearings in greater numbers to support a slate of bicycle and pedestrian projects including this one and, also successfully, the three new bridges along the Springwater Trail.

The additional two years of effort paid off — the Morrison Bridge project was granted the full $1.5 million request.

The new, wide path under construction
on the south side of the bridge.
(Photo © Adams Carroll)

In 2003, the design and engineering work began. The County appointed me to the Project Advisory Committee and I fought hard to maintain my vision for a grand public space over the river. This was not to be as City and County engineers determined that it was not feasible to remove an east-bound lane of car traffic.

Maintaining the six car travel lanes on the bridge provided only an additional ten feet of space to play with, and the consensus of the committee and the public was to shift this extra width to the south sidewalk. The relatively low budget and the resulting fifteen-foot multi-use path could not accommodate the landscape improvements and park benches that I had envisioned years earlier.

The “new” Morrison Bridge that you will soon be walking and cycling over is the result of that process. It could hardly be considered a greenway or an esplanade, but it will provide a great multi-modal transportation facility and take some pressure off of the Hawthorne Bridge’s congested sidewalks.

Eventually, the Morrison Bridge bikeway will become just as busy as Hawthorne’s. At that point, someone will need to lead the fight for a new and bold way to serve the ever-increasing number of people crossing the Willamette River on foot or by bike.

[Publisher’s note: Multnomah County says completion of the Morrison Bridge project has been delayed until late January. We’ll update you as soon as we have more details. Browse our previous coverage of this project here.]

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