(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)
Facing fierce opposition from the public — and stern questioning from Portland Mayor Sam Adams — Multnomah County decided to not move forward on their cost-cutting proposal for the Sellwood Bridge project. The proposal would have had significant impacts to bicycling on the bridge and it has only been public for about one week (versus six years of process to reach consensus on the existing design).
Adams was clearly displeased with many aspects of the proposal throughout a meeting of the Project Stakeholder Committee which took place at Multnomah County headquarters today. At the meeting, the County was asking Adams and the PSC (which includes state legislators and reps from TriMet, ODOT, the Federal Highway Administration, and more) to agree to the plan ahead of a vote by the County Commission scheduled for this Thursday.
“I don’t understand why you proposed such a radical change at the last minute, and now we’re changing it back. What’s that all about?”— Mayor Adams
Multnomah County project manager Ian Cannon brought members of the PSC up to speed on the project. Cannon explained that cost estimates for the project have gone up due to a variety of reasons, and as a result, they were looking to “value-engineer” the project. It became clear right away that the brunt of the cost-cutting was being put on the backs of bicycling and walking access. The biggest ticket item on the chopping block was a $2 million 700 foot structure on the west end that would carry biking and walking traffic from the south side of the bridge down to existing off-highway paths along the Willamette River. Without that bridge path in the mix, the County figured there would be so little demand on the bridge’s south side that they could shift most of the biking and walking access to the north side (the new, “asymmetrical” cross section would save additional $300,000).
In his presentation, Cannon said the County sought these value-engineering measures with an eye toward getting, “A very similar outcome in a more cost-effective way.” Put another way, the County said they wanted to “substitute or eliminate specific aspects of the project without adversely affecting the function or safe user experience.”
But judging from opposition to the idea from biking and walking advocacy groups and from neighborhood activists, the County failed to meet their own standard.
Adams spoke up loud and clear for those groups today. In an unrelenting fashion, he asked Cannon many questions and it became clear early in the meeting that the County has failed to fully flesh out their proposal.
At one point, TriMet representative on the PSC Dave Unsworth asked Cannon: “If you’re heading north on Highway 43 on a bicycle, how do you get through this intersection safely?” “That’s a good question,” Cannon replied, “I don’t have a great answer for you right now. We’ll have to consider that as we move forward.”
On the north side of the western end of the bridge, the County proposes a long switchback ramp for bicycle traffic to access the riverside path. Adams wanted to know if there was an accompanying stairway in the plans, similar to the stair/ramp combo on the Eastbank Esplanade near the Steel Bridge. “No. Currently there are no stairs,” replied Cannon.
Adams said he’s heard from groups like the Willamette Pedestrian Coalition and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance about a lack of clarity around the plans. Adams also grilled Cannon on the details of the project’s budget, wanting to know why the County was so far off on their estimate and why they didn’t have more money in contingency plans to cover it.
Central to Adams’ questions were how the County’s estimates could be off by as much as $70 million. As Adams peppered Cannon with a series of questions about the budget, he grew frustrated: “This causes me great concern… You’re asking us to do this on a quick timeline,” he said. “This is a big [budget] swing and there are some details that are pretty important to our constituencies out there… You’re asking us to approve this today and the board is supposed to vote this Thursday?”
Cannon said that, yes, the County wants to move forward quickly with the proposed changes so that the overall project timeline could be maintained. But you could tell from Adams’ displeasure from early in the meeting, that he was not comfortable with the proposal. Adams pointed out that, even with the south sidewalk removed, the County still had belvederes on the south side in the plans. “Why keep the south belvederes on the south side if there’s no sidewalk?” he asked.
When asked point blank by a PSC member why the County was now pushing the asymmetrical design, Cannon acknowledged it would save only $300,000. Upon hearing that an exasperated Adams and fellow PSC member (and Metro Council Chair) Carlotta Collette both gasped, “Is that all!?”
The County’s new design and the project in general raised a lot of several questions from PSC members. After the PSC heard a report about the proposal from members of the project’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee and then heard public comments, it became clear the County’s proposal — especially the rushed timeline — would not have their support.
When it came time to vote, PSC Chair and County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury saw the writing on the wall. She put a motion on the table to go back to the symmetrical design (and by association, the multi-use path bridge) and move other pieces of the cost-cutting proposal forward. Adams was first to comment when she opened debate on the motion.
After saying he felt Kafoury’s motion was the best way to proceed, he said to her, “I don’t understand why you proposed such a radical change at the last minute, and now we’re changing it back. What’s that all about?”
Adams added, “I guess I’m just, respectfully, suffering from whiplash here.”
In addition to the timeline, the PSC meeting raised new concerns for Adams. He’s especially concerned about the budget issues. At $84.5 million, the Sellwood Bridge is the most expensive transportation project he has been a part of in his eight-year career. He’s now requested a meeting with the project contractor to get the answers to his questions.
Adams told the County that whatever they do from here on out, they need to come up with the cost savings by looking “within the project.” “Don’t do it by adding more money onto our [the City of Portland] ledger… I’m already having to cut maintenance, I don’t want to cut more.”
In the end, the PSC voted to recommend the original, symmetrical cross-section and its $2 million biking/walking path, while accepting the other cost-cutting measures put forward and to “continue conversations” to refine the design. From here, it’s not clear what action the County Commission might take on Thursday, although it’s unlikely they’d ignore the strong concerns expressed by the PSC and by the public today.