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There’s still a layer of gravel on the St. Johns Bridge sidewalk – UPDATED

Posted by on February 14th, 2017 at 1:32 pm

It’s unacceptable to force road users to make a dangerous choice between being run down by fast-moving drivers or riding over small slippery rocks on a narrow sidewalk.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

The only refuge from fast-moving (and often irate) people driving cars across the St. Johns Bridge is still covered in a layer of gravel a month after the last snow storm.

As we first reported nearly three weeks ago, while driving is pretty much back to normal following major snow storms, biking is still hazardous. Massive potholes plague streets and many bike lane markings have all but vanished due to the constant scraping from tire chains, plows, studded tires, and gravel. And there are still many trees and limbs that block bicycle-only lanes — forcing people into adjacent lanes which increases the risk of collisions.

All our various road agencies need to place a much higher priority on the safety of all road users when it comes to their storm clean-up plans.

One of the most egregrious spots is on the sidewalk of the St. Johns Bridge. There’s so much gravel that in some parts you can’t see the surface of the sidewalk. This is a big deal because the St. Johns Bridge is a vital bicycling connection and the roadway lacks bike lanes. With large diesel trucks rumbling inches away, the narow St. Johns Bridge sidewalks are already sketchy enough. Add slippery gravel and you’ve got even more stressful situation.

When I first saw the gravel on February 4th I tweeted the Oregon Department of Transportation to put the issue on their radar…

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To my surprise an ODOT rep has confirmed with me that they are not responsible for sweeping the sidewalks. Even though ODOT owns and maintains the bridge and roadway, they have a special maintenance agreement with City of Portland Bureau of Transportation. Turns out it’s PBOT’s responsibility to keep the sidewalk clean.

A huge tree is completely blocking the bike lane on Highway 30, just one example of storm damage that remains a big threat to bicycle users.

On February 6th I got an email from PBOT about the gravel. They’d seen my tweet to ODOT and were curious if I was writing a story about it. Yes I was, I replied. “We’re almost a full month since the last snow fell on the ground and I was pretty surprised that such key arteries of our active transportation system were in such terrible shape,” I said. And then I asked, “Can you help me understand why we have the situation we do on the St. Johns Bridge and Hwy 30? How can it take a month (and counting) to address key traffic lanes and routes in places where there is no alternate route for bicycle users?”

I didn’t hear anything back. I followed up three days later and still haven’t gotten a reply. (See below for update.)

As of last night (February 13th) the gravel remains on the St. Johns Bridge sidewalk.

In related news, Highway between downtown and the St. Johns Bridge was in terrible shape as of last week.

Thankfully much of the gravel has been swept in the past few days, but a large tree still completely blocks the bike lane north of Saltzman Road.

Back in January, PBOT said they hoped to have the gravel picked up by mid-February. We appreciate all the work they have done — and continue to do — to clear the shoulders and bike lanes. Perhaps in the future we can do a better job to make sure that key routes like the St. Johns Bridge, Willamette Blvd (which I hear just got swept today), and Highway 30, can be prioritized and cleaned up much more quickly.

We are also concerned about the response times of ODOT and Washington County in addressing this issue. We’ve heard from readers that major streets like Barbur and key bike routes on the West Side remain full of debris. Please continue to share your reports with us (directly and in the comments) so we can keep track of the problem and hopefully get it resolved soon.

UPDATE, 2:57 pm: I have heard back from PBOT about the St. Johns Bridge. Here’s the latest from Communications Director John Brady:

“I can confirm that we have an agreement to sweep the St. John’s Bridge sidewalks. We are aware of the issues that folks have with the gravel. Removing the gravel is a bit more complex than simply running a sweeper because we first have to get it off the sidewalk and into the street. Then we can sweep it up. In order to do this safely, we have to temporarily limit access to the lane. So there is a bit more traffic control involved than just a normal sweeping run. We’ve prioritized and hope to have it done next week. If this schedule changes, we will let you and your readers know.

In terms of the tree down, the best thing to do is to call 503-823-1700. This is also the best line for gravel and other urgent road hazards. Folks can also use the PDXreporter app or email PDXroads@portlandoregon.gov.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Adam
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Adam

Did ODOT sweep the bikelanes on Highway 30 yet? They were so full of gravel a week ago, all of the cyclists had to ride IN THE TRAVEL LANE. It was terrifying, and completely unacceptable.

Portlander
Guest
Portlander

NE Weidler and NE Broadway from the Broadway Bridge to NE 15th is terrible and dangerous!

MaxD
Guest
MaxD

Even though they have swept Interstate, they did not do very thorough job and the gravel has once again accumulated in the bike lanes. the worst section are between Fremont (Kaiser/top of hill) and TIllamook)

Adam
Subscriber

The ramp coming off the Hawthorne Bridge into downtown is still covered in gravel, as are the green lanes on Caruthers near OMSI. There has been a downed tree blocking a sidewalk near my house for months now (yes I called Parks – all they did was put some caution tape around it and left the tree where it was). PBOT has such a massive backlog of maintenance, they will never get to it all themselves – especially if they are creating more work for themselves by laying the gravel in the first place. What we need to do now is organize community-led efforts to clean up our streets ourselves where the government services have failed us. This problem will only get worse, not better.

Kittens
Subscriber
Kittens

Thanks Johnathan for covering this. Because of the recently nice weather and people venturing out on bikes again, I was waiting for this all-to-routine story. It’s obvious to me and anyone who rides that the priority is entirely one sided on the application. Beyond bikes, I can’t imagine how good this is for the storm drains.

I’m shocked at how poor the conditions are on our roads.

It appears to me that PBOT and ODOT are going to have to ask for additional funds if they are going to get our streets back to where they were before the storms.

Teddy
Guest
Teddy

Did the gravel get thrown up there by plows? If I still lived in Portsmouth I would be tempted to sweep the gravel onto the road. I hope these unsafe conditions are dealt with soon.

Paul H
Guest
Paul H

The same situation exists on Hwy 99E between Milwaukie and Oregon City (and perhaps further in either direction; I only travel that segment). There are some spots where bikes get moving pretty quickly: northbound between Oak Grove and downtown Milwaukie, southbound in Oak Grove, and southbound heading into Gladstone.

Braking in those areas right now is (to put it mildly) hazardous. There’s cross traffic and stoplights that frequently make you slow way down or stop altogether, often mid-descent. Aside from the gravel, there are the normal bits of debris; there are too many places where your tires have no decent contact with the pavement.

Spiffy
Subscriber

where’s K’Tesh with his “see something, do something” arsenal of maintenance tools? he’s needed back in Portland…

Steve
Guest
Steve

The St. Johns bridge sidewalk cleaning is further complicated by the fact that if you blew the gravel off, it would rain down on folks in Cathedral Park, so I imagine it will take a coordinated effort between PBOT and Parks.

MaxD
Guest
MaxD

Suspended solids or sediment in stormwater is major issue, especially since our storm system dumps directly into a salmon-bearing river. Here is what the EPA has to say (Maybe we should start complaining to the EPA about unswept streets instead of PBOT?!)
https://cfpub.epa.gov/npstbx/files/KSMO_Sediment.pdf

rick
Guest
rick

B-grade

rick
Guest
rick

SW Scholls Ferry Road and SW Oleson Road both have lots of gravel and many stretches have no bike lane paint. Last month, Washington County had the disrespect to actually plow the snow of the road so that cars were purposely driving in the entire bike lane by the intersection of SW 86th Ave on Scholls Ferry, an access point for the Fanno Creek Trail due to the nearby public staircase. I’ve been using a shovel to pick up some muck and gravel on Scholls by the TriMet bus stop at SW Laurelwood Ave. Darn metal-studded tires on SUVs and Subarus.

Ted Buehler
Guest

“503-823-1700. This is also the best line for gravel and other urgent road hazards.”

“Folks can also use the PDXreporter app or email PDXroads@portlandoregon.gov.”

Use these numbers, folks. Call stuff in, get it fixed.

Thanks for the story, Jonathan,

Ted Buehler

David
Guest
David

There are three issues, by my count, at play here and they’re being jumbled together in the story and comments. Let’s try to peel them apart.

First this winter has been pretty miserable. Really. Between the multiple snow storms, some ice on top of that and then the wind storms that have come in more recently and taken out many trees that managed to survive the initial rounds of punishment. It’s a lot to keep track of and keeping the roads clear from everything is a challenge. There are plenty of trees and plants that have and still are impacting bike lanes throughout the city and it has largely not been handled in a timely manner unless auto lanes are also blocked. (Though a big thanks to whoever took an ax to a tree that fell just before the intersection of Beaverton-Hillsdale and SW 30th so that bikes could make it through.)

With that out of the way we get to what gets everyone here tied up in knots: gravel (it’s not sand if every single piece of it can make a dent in your windshield). The policy on gravel is absolutely unacceptable if the city cares one bit about their cycling mode share. You can’t say “we’re going to lay down gravel/sand at the drop of a hat if cars are having trouble getting around for a few hours” but then tell cyclists “deal with it for 1-2 months until we sweep it up because our resources are strained and we don’t have any capacity to pick it up faster”. I get that it can’t be picked up as quickly as it’s put down but that doesn’t mean that it’s acceptable to litter the streets with this for weeks on end. Any policy on laying down gravel needs to also include a plan to clean it up in a short period of time, it’s called a service agreement and we don’t seem to have one right now.

Finally the last issue ties into the first two which is that the timing of these storms and the responses to them have make things that much more frustrating. Barbur Blvd was swept within a few days of the very first storm in December, then the next storm rolled through a few days later followed by the one in January and there is still gravel on the ground there. Throughout this winter every road I ride on has been swept 1-2 times however there have been prolonged stretches on each and every one where I have had (and continue) to ride on an inordinate amount of gravel.

If you made it through all that kudos to you, if not here’s the summary: this winter has been a confluence of events but it really boils down to bike lanes and their maintenance not being a priority when compared to the convenience of cars and trucks.

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I’ve been saying it on other threads too, but I think one of the big problems is the size of grit PBOT and other agencies have been using on the roads. The problem for cyclists isn’t the use of sand per se, it’s the amount of really coarse pebbles and gravel mixed in there.

Here in Minnesota we use plenty of sand on our roadways, but it doesn’t create as much of a problem for cyclists because:
1. We use actual sand, not gravel.
2. Because of the environmental issues others have mentioned, our road agencies are pretty careful about how much sand they put down, and only in conditions where it will actually help. Sometimes rock salt, bring, MgCl, other deicers or sand (or combination thereof) is the best treatment.

Minneapolis has had 5-6 ice storms so far this winter (besides the usual snow), and despite all the stuff that’s been put down the road surface here is more pleasant to bike on than the gravel on the streets of Portland right now.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

I wouldn’t be riding on that shit!

Dwaine Dibbly
Guest
Dwaine Dibbly

The side path along Terwilliger is really terrible from Campus Drive northward at least.

Kevin Wagoner
Subscriber
Kevin Wagoner

There two topics in this article I would like to hear more about.

1. How do these things get prioritize (for example should Barbur or the Saint John’s Bridge get swept first.”

2. Why is it ok for ODOT to simply create a mess for someone else to clean up?

James
Guest
James

Winter: OMG, gravel everywhere. Help!

Summer: Gravel grinding is neato.

Derp.

Buzz
Guest
Buzz

Update on northbound N. Interstate between Larrabee and Tillamook:

This was cleaned again, but in the process the sweeper left behind multiple small piles of gravel in the typical cyclists path between the white stripe and the drainage grates that need to be avoided by entering the adjacent MV lane.

I guess the sweeper operators simply don’t check their work in their rear-view mirror or by direct observation in any way shape or form.

:-/

Mark smith
Guest
Mark smith

Pretty sweet deal that odot has with pbot. Odot gets to control the bridge that kills people and pbot is relegated to sweeping up the sidewalks.

Edward
Guest
Edward

Took the lane on the St. John’s bridge on Sunday, during the Worst Day of the Year ride. It was glorious. Went back and checked photos, yep, gravel all over the sidewalk.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BQiyuOylGXQ/

Edward
Guest
Edward

Took the lane on the St. John’s bridge on Sunday, during the Worst Day of the Year ride. It was glorious. Went back and checked photos, yep, gravel all over the sidewalk.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BQiyuOylGXQ

Bill Clinton's Ghost
Guest
Bill Clinton's Ghost

This is how you can tell that BP is not a paid shill for the bike repair industry. Tyres are popping all over town. But J. Maus won’t be corrupted by the maintenance lobby’s bribes, he is sticking his neck out to end this cash cow of a problem that the greedy fatcats at the BOTs are allowing to happen. They are the ones in bed with the bike tyre industry!

(Sometimes I like to pretend that everything works like Washington D.C.)

Bald One
Guest
Bald One

Jonathan, thanks for writing about this. I think there are many more sites and sections of Portland’s bike network that have similar byzantine maintenance issues.

PBOTs program to use winter gravel must end, permanently. They have no way to clean it up effectively or timely. It is simply too much of months-long on-going safety hazard for peds and cyclists with only some dubious, short-lived benefit for drivers without traction tires to drive around on snow.

Ted Buehler
Guest

When calling or emailing to ask for sweeping, you can always refer to documents like this.

https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/319704

Bill Clinton's Ghost
Guest
Bill Clinton's Ghost

Could we rig up something to drag behind bikes that would push the gravel off to the side? Ideally into the motor vehicle lane, but if we want to be altruistic about it, we could orient them toward the gutter..

Pete
Guest
Pete

I think this is a systemic flaw in the system. When the city, county or state budgets to create a new bike facility, they aren’t also required to accept the financial responsibility to make sure the facility remains functional. We’ve been failed in this respect for far too long.

highrider
Guest
highrider

PBOT is cleaning the sidewalks on the SJB as I type this.

TAJ
Guest
TAJ

Rode the bridge today. Scattered gravel on the sidewalks, better than it was but not great. Here’s the problem now: the off ramp to/from 30 toward Sauvie is covered in gravel. Impassible. I aborted and turned around after seeing it didn’t improve on 30. Ridiculous.