There’s a renewed effort afoot that could result in something most observers thought would never happen: legal public access to the “Cement Road” that runs through Union Pacific’s Albina Yards along the Willamette River between Swan Island and the Fremont Bridge.
Union Pacific Railroad owns the road and they don’t allow public use. There are “Private Property” and “No Trespassing” signs posted at its northern entrance (at the end of N Portland Center Way); but many of Swan Island’s 10,000 employees who ride bikes to work still use the road because it’s the only flat and safe way to get to work. As recently as December 2012, UP spokesman Brock Nelson said they were, “Not interested in either selling or allowing public access to this property.”
However, it now appears UP’s position on this idea might be softening up a bit.
Last week U.S. Congressman Earl Blumenauer facilitated a meeting that included reps from Union Pacific, the Swan Island Transportation Management Association, and the City of Portland. The impetus was a possibility that the Cement Road might be included in a TIGER grant funding request. While we now know that the TIGER application does not include the Cement Road, it’s worthwhile to note that Mayor Hales’ office and other sources say the conversations are ongoing and that Union Pacific seems — for the first time ever — open to the bicycle access possibility.
Mayor Hales’ Policy Director Josh Alpert confirmed for us this morning that, “the mayor has been actively involved in the discussions with Union Pacific regarding the North Portland Greenway.” Alpert says Hales has long been a supporter of the Greenway project (which would create a 10-mile paved corridor from Kelley Point Park to the Eastbank Esplanade) which he referred to as a “vital linkage.”
“The Mayor has long been a supporter of the NP Greenway both as a trail and a transportation corridor… and tying in Swan Island is critical and becoming more so as PCC and others invest and expand in the area.”
— Josh Alpert, Mayor Hales’ Policy Director
Hales’ Communications Director Dana Haynes added that, “Apparently the talks are going very well. UP has been at the table, willing to talk, the whole way.”
This is a major shift in a very important conversation. The Cement Road is crucial to the future of bicycle access on Swan Island. Even though these talks are still preliminary, there are several important takeaways from this news:
- Mayor Hales is spending political capital to help improve bicycling conditions.
- Does Union Pacific see our new leadership in City Hall as an opportunity to re-engage on this issue? That’s very likely. If it’s true, it shows the potential impact Mayor Hales can have on other bicycle-related projects/policies going forward.
- Portland Parks & Recreation is no longer involved in the planning/negotations around this part of the NP Greenway project. As we last reported in April, PP&R was willing to route the NP Greenway up on surface streets rather than bring Union Pacific to the table. Now it appears the Mayor has put the Bureau of Transportation in charge of this part of the project — which is a very smart move.
- The conversation around Cement Road access now goes way beyond the NP Greenway, which Union Pacific could rightfully perceive as simply a “recreational trail” project. Now the story of bicycle access to Swan Island is one of employee mobility and access to jobs. Did that change in framing help bring Union Pacific to the table? As our recent story about Daimler Trucks North America illustrates, Swan Island is booming with new development (Daimler has hinted at an expansion this year while Portland Community College is set to launch a workforce training center and Vigor Shipyards will open a major dry-dock repair facility next year) and bike use is booming along with it.
The big story here isn’t about the NP Greenway, it’s about Swan Island. Sarah Angell from the Swan Island Transportation Management Association recently shared that Swan Island is set to receive about $200 million in private sector investments in the coming years. These new jobs will present Swan Island with even greater transportation access challenges. Making it easier for people to reach Swan Island by bike will be crucial.
Josh Alpert in the Mayor’s office put it this way in an email to us this morning:
“The Mayor has long been a supporter of the NP Greenway both as a trail and a transportation corridor — connecting North Portland residents to downtown and vice-versa is a vital linkage, and tying in Swan Island is critical and becoming more so as PCC [Portland Community College] and others invest and expand in the area.”
Hales and Union Pacific have a golden opportunity to forge an agreement that aids in the economic resurgence of Swan Island and improves transportation access and safety. If this works out it would be a great story for both parties to tell. Stay tuned.
Note: Union Pacific spokesman Brock Nelson could not be reached for comment.