Smiles all around as Sellwood Bridge project breaks ground

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury (L) smiles as she poses with a check from USDOT Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy Polly Trottenberg at the ground breaking event in Sellwood Riverfront Park this morning.

Elected officials, community leaders, and a bunch of very happy schoolkids amassed at Sellwood Riverfront Park this morning to mark the official beginning of the Sellwood Bridge Project. It was a day when the beaming smiles on Multnomah County officials’ faces were almost, almost, brighter than the gorgeous sunshine.

In an era marked by bleak budgets and political stalemates, starting a $268 million transportation project that has been years in the making and included a myriad of agencies and jurisdictions, is indeed something to celebrate.

Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury looked like a kid on Christmas morning as she addressed the large crowd. Underscoring the urgent need to replace the bridge, she shared a story about how her kids have recently starting singing, “London Bridges falling down.” “Except,” remarked Kafoury, “they weren’t saying ‘London’.”

Commissioner Kafoury was about as happy as you’ll ever see an elected official. You’d be happy too if you were breaking ground on a $268 million bridge project.

Kafoury, like many others who spoke this morning, claimed that the new Sellwood Bridge isn’t just another project. “This bridge represents our community’s values, our community’s ethics,” she said. Or, in the words of ODOT Region 1 Director Jason Tell, the project is a, “Symbol of seeing the connection between investing in our transportation system and what it can do for our communities.”

How does a simple bridge become a symbol for something greater?

One way, according to Kafoury’s colleague, Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, is that the new bridge will, “Expand capacity for bikes, for pedestrians, for buses, and even for streetcars as well… We’re proud that this project will significantly reduce our carbon footprint.”

County Chair Cogen is proud to put his face on this bridge.

Cogen also said the project is a symbol of another set of values our region holds near and dear: collaboration and partnership between government agencies and with the public.

L to R: State Representative Carolyn Tomei, Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, State Senator Diane Rosenbaum, ODOT Region 1 Manager Jason Tell, Multnomah Coounty Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, USDOT Asst Sec Polly Trottenberg

Cogen said,

“We live in a time of stalemate and often stagnation, where critics say it’s impossible to get things done. But this project is a clear example that when we work together in partnership, as a county, as a city as a state, and as a federal government, we can make things happen, we can big important things happen. We can make that happen [pointing to the bridge]! And today we’re kicking it off!”

The decrepit Sellwood Bridge was a fitting backdrop to the event.

Partnership was a theme many of today’s speakers touched on. ODOT’s Jason Tell called it, “Extreme collaboration.”

Polly Trottenberg, the Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, who was at the event to hand over a $17.7 million check to Multnomah County, spoke about the intense competition for limited TIGER grant funds:

“The TIGER competition was fierce. USDOT received 848 applications requesting over $14 billion and we had only $511 million to award. We looked all over the country for the best projects, and I have to say, the application for the Sellwood Bridge project knocked it out of the park!”

Multnomah County definitely deserves props for this project. I’ve found the process easy to follow and they put together the best major project website I’ve ever interacted with. Go ahead, have a piece of cake, you deserve it!

While Multnomah County owned the limelight today (and rightfully so), it was kids from nearby elementary schools who stole the show. Two girls from Llewellyn Elementary, who shared a rehearsed presentation with the crowd, summed up the feelings of many people in attendance when they proclaimed, “The new bridge is going to be waaay cooler than the old one.”

You know your project is a winner when it gets kids this excited.
(Photo by Len Rubin)

Speaking of this being a “cool” bridge, check out this cross-section drawing that was shown today…

The new bridge is slated to open in 2015, the same year as TriMet’s new Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Bridge. Portland Mayor Sam Adams pointed out during his remarks that this coincidence, “Fortifies our moniker and motto of ‘Bridge City’.”

On that note, I leave you with one final photo. As promised, water cannons!

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