Parks’ proposal puts North Portland Greenway ‘Trail’ on surface streets – UPDATED

Interstate Ave -6
Portland Parks & Rec says they’ll move forward
with using this portion of N Interstate for the
Willamette Greenway Trail.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)

The dream for the North Portland Greenway trail project has always been to extend the Eastbank Esplanade to St. Johns along the river. It was envisioned as a path that would be separated from motor vehicle traffic, just like Esplanade and Springwater exist today through the Central City.

Unfortunately, design and engineering of the project is moving forward with the assumption that the “trail” will actually be routed away from river and along busy, narrow, and dangerous roads.

When the Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) bureau came out with plans back in September showing the preferred alignment up on N Greeley and Interstate Ave, there was widespread criticism and concern.

The natural alignment for the trail, and the one overwhelmingly preferred by the public, is on a privately owned road between Swan Island and the Fremont Bridge known as the Ash Grove Cement Road. The road is owned by Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) and is used by the Ash Grove Cement company. And despite “No Trespassing” signs, it’s also used by an increasing number of Swan Island employees who bike to work.

Parks’ initial alignment map showing preference for Greeley/Interstate.

One week after Parks’ proposal to put the trail up on Greeley and Interstate surfaced, they shared results from a public survey about the alignment. 57% of survey respondents said they didn’t like it. Of the 147 public comments Parks received about this segment, 52 of them urged Parks to put the trail on the Cement Rd. The second most common response was “Keep trail close to river” (with 25 comments) and “Not Greeley” with 24. “Concerned about safety” was fourth.

It’s clear. Both the public and trail advocates remain strongly in favor of using the Cement Rd.

City of Portland Project Manager Emily Roth.

Friends of the North Portland Greenway Trail chair Francie Royce told the Portland Mercury back in October that putting the route up on Greeley and Interstate is, “An easy route for them politically,” but that it’s, “a miserable route for bikers and walkers.” The friends group put out an email to their supporters that said, “N. Greeley as an alternative to the Cement Road is unacceptable.”

On November 13th, after the public made their concerns very clear, PP&R Project Manager Emily Roth visited the Bureau of Transportation’s Bicycle Advisory Committee to present their latest thinking on the alignment.

Roth said she’s heard the concerns loud and clear. She added that alignment maps would be revised for the open house next month to give equal weight to the Greeley/Interstate and Cement Rd. routes. However, Roth’s words spoke louder than lines on a map.

“I’m concerned that any formal and disproportionate efforts toward the Greeley/Interstate alignment will weaken our ability to advocate for the Cement Road.”
— Sarah Angell, Swan Island Transportation Management Association

“We do not have permission from the railroad to build anything on this [road],” she said emphatically in a presentation to members of the Bicycle Advisory Committee. While both route lines will be placed on the official maps, Roth said Parks will only be moving forward with design and engineering for the Greeley/Interstate alignment.

Roth reminded the BAC that the Greeley facility would be an off-street, grade-separated path (think of a cycle-track like the one on SW Moody). However, not only would that facility be (prohibitively?) expensive, when it heads onto Interstate Ave, there’s no room available for such a path. That means the “trail” would be on a narrow, stressful bike lane next to large trucks and other motor vehicles.

According to Roth, the City is, “between a rock and a hard place with the Cement Rd.” Roth cited a letter drafted by UPRR to the City stating they are not interested in even discussing a possible trail easement across their property. And the City has essentially zero legal power because Ash Grove Cement is designated as a “river-dependent industry” in the recently adopted River Plan and therefore has no obligation to allow a trail.

“A trail along Greeley Ave is not a greenway… The Cement Rd is the ideal alignment.”
— Emily York, Commissioner Nick Fish’s office

Throughout her presentation, Roth said Parks hasn’t given up on getting the Cement Rd route, but she also made it clear that the decision goes beyond committees and planners. “It has to be at the Commissioner/Mayor level,” she said, “And the businesses on Swan Island need a coalition to talk with the railroad.”

Nick Fish is the commissioner in charge of the Parks bureau. Back in November, one of his policy advisors, Emily York, told me they had a meeting with trail advocates about the Cement Rd. “A trail along Greeley Ave is not a greenway,” York acknowledged. She said Commissioner Fish has “always been in support of a greenway along the river and that hasn’t changed.” “The Cement Rd is the ideal alignment.”

York said she and Fish see the Greeley/Interstate alignment as simply a more near-term possibility (5-10 years down the road) while they start to have “further conversations” about the Cement Rd. “How do we get this going? That’s something Nick is interesting in playing a role in.”

While York expresses support for the Cement Rd., Union Pacific’s opposition to the trail — and the lack of legal obligation they have to even entertain the idea — means the City must be very careful about how they move forward. If the City does anything that could be considered as planning for the trail on the Cement Rd, it could be seen as an act of defiance and an overstepping of the railroad’s authority.

Sarah Angell, the executive director of the Swan Island Transportation Management Association, is a big proponent of the Cement Rd because she knows what a crucial connection it is for the many bike commuters on Swan Island. She says too much acquiescence by the City on the Cement Rd, will make it even harder to consider at a later date. “I’m concerned that any formal and disproportionate efforts toward the Greeley/Interstate alignment will weaken our ability to advocate for the Cement Road.”

“Getting the Cement Road endorsed in the plan will take everything we’ve got,” Angell shared with us via email, “And now that the City’s political will should’ve gotten a boost from the community, is their message back to the public going to be, ‘When things are tough, let’s back off and not try as hard?'”

We’ll get another chance to hear from Parks at their next open house on January 9th. I’m also hoping to hear back from a Union Pacific rep about their perspective on the issue.

For now, it looks like something must change for the Cement Rd to get back into play. Former Chair of the PBOT Bike Advisory Committee, Matthew Arnold, captured what I think are many people’s feelings about this situation: “Interstate is not a safe or comfortable facility for all but a few of us… It seems like an unfortunate end to a pretty great plan.”

— Learn more on the official project website.

UPDATE, 12/5 at 7:33 am: Union Pacific RR Director of Public Affairs Brock Nelson has replied to my inquiries. He says the Cement Rd is “actively used by both UPRR and Ash Grove Cement,” and says UPRR is not interested in allowing the public on the property. Below is his full comment:

“… the cement road supports our operations in Albina Yard on a 24 hour a day 7 day a week basis. Union Pacific’s maintenance vehicles and work equipment use this road on a daily basis in the performance of their duties. Also, there are multiple railroad tracks crossing the road which are used to serve our local customers. Union Pacific has significant concerns with non-railroad related uses of its rights-of-way and the inherent danger of mixing freight operations and pedestrians. In addition, Union Pacific needs to preserve the ability to expand our track capacity within Albina Yard at sometime in the future. As such, Union Pacific is not interested in either selling or allowing public access to this property.

In a follow-up comment, Nelson said Union Pacific has a, “good working relationship with the City of Portland and is always willing to meet with them to talk.”

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