“It’s not what plan is the best, it’s which one sucks the least… It’s absolutely outrageous.”
— Rocky Smith, Oregon City Commissioner
A carfree Willamette River bridge project in its early planning stages is already getting sharp rebukes from a key group of stakeholders.
As we shared back in January, the Oregon Department of Transportation wants to build a new biking and walking link between downtown Oregon City and West Linn. Given the myriad new tourism, transportation, and real estate developments happening on both sides of the Willamette in the area, providing a high-quality bridge crossing for non-drivers is a high priority for the region. Currently the only way to get across the river without a car is the historic Arch Bridge, which has narrow sidewalks and no dedicated cycling space.
Members of the Oregon City Commission however, are not having it. At a work session on February 9th, they eviscerated ODOT and made it clear they don’t support a new bridge.
After watching a presentation from an ODOT consultant who went over several potential alignment options (above), Commissioner Rocky Smith said, “The fact that ODOT basically sold you out by having you come in here and present to us with no representative from ODOT is telling because they know it’s not what plan is the best, it’s which one sucks the least.”(ODOT consultant slides)
Smith feels a new bridge isn’t needed. He thinks room should be found for bikers and walkers on the existing I-205 Abernethy Bridge or the Arch Bridge. “[ODOT has] spent so much money on plans for these bridges and never thought about this problem,” Smith said in frustration. He’s also against a new bridge because of how it would “block” existing views of the Willamette Falls or the Arch Bridge.
“You’re going to be able to drive across this historic bridge that the state spent millions of dollars on, and you’re going to look, and guess what, you won’t see the falls. This is outrageous. I mean it’s absolutely outrageous,” Smith said, growing more heated with each word. “The last thing that I wanted to see was us closing the [Arch] bridge*, but the truth is that makes the most sense. That’s how ridiculous all these other concepts are. I have no way to support any of them. I’m just flabbergasted at the stupidity of ODOT.” (*Based on previous feedback from the commission, ODOT has already ruled out making the Arch Bridge carfree.)
Smith said he’d rather see bikers and walkers routed onto a path on the I-205 freeway bridge; but that’s an idea ODOT discarded in a 2016 study. (According to the ODOT consultant: “The assessment determined that suspending or cantilevering a path from the Abernethy Bridge is more expensive than a stand-alone structure and would result in a sub-optimal user experience due to the proximity of fast traffic, noise, and air concerns.”)
Commissioner Frank O’Donnell was also very critical of the project and ODOT. He doesn’t think a bridge is necessary because there’s no demand. “What is the existing problem? Or the future problem we’re trying to solve? What are the studies on our foot traffic? What’s our bicycle traffic?… You don’t see them.”
O’Donnell says biking and walking work great on the I-205 Glenn Jackson Bridge over the Columbia River, so he feels the same should be done on the Abernethy. “Are you telling me we can’t do something like that?… It makes no sense to me, with my engineering background, to build a new structure… when you can incorporate a walkway or bikeway in the changes in the Abernathy Bridge.”
O’Donnell said he doesn’t support any of the alignment options currently on the table. And he went further in sharing his distaste for how ODOT has carried out the process thus far. “I think we’re gonna eventually find ourselves in a lawsuit with local communities suing ODOT and suing the State of Oregon because the way they conduct business.”
Commissioner Denyse McGriff also said ODOT should take another look at the I-205/Abernethy Bridge. Speaking to O’Donnell’s comparison to the Glenn Jackson Bridge, McGriff said, “I have not walked all of it myself but I’ve walked part of it. And yeah, it’s a little bit noisy, but that may work… there’s pedestrians and bicyclists on both sides.”
“Pretty much most of us don’t believe there’s a need for a new bridge and I’m really not sure why we’re here tonight.”
— Rocky Smith, commissioner
“We must have a plan to get in line for funding.”
— Rian Windsheimer, ODOT
These commissioners might not be aware of the conditions on the Glenn Jackson Bridge. Contrary to McGriff’s contention, it does not have a path on both sides (perhaps she is confusing it with the I-5 Bridge). The I-205 bridge over the Columbia is horrible for anyone outside of a car. It’s a narrow strip about nine-feet wide for two directions of traffic sandwiched (with no buffer) between many lanes of loud, fast-moving traffic. It can be a harrowing experience to cross, even for courageous and experienced riders. To support another bridge with this design shows an extreme lack of perspective and is disrespectful of people who walk and use bicycles.
ODOT’s consultant did his best to offer more information and explain why the Abernethy and Arch Bridges are not good options.
Then yesterday, ODOT began the damage control effort by sending several staff members to the March commission meeting. ODOT Region 1 Director Rian Windsheimer shared a presentation trying to answer the commission’s questions from last month. Commissioner Smith was not impressed.
“There was nothing new here, there’s nothing that we don’t know. It’s just that you watched the meeting last month and realized ‘Wow, we don’t have the support on this and clearly we must be not educating them.’ … pretty much most of us don’t believe there’s a need for a new bridge and I’m really not sure why we’re here tonight.”
At Wednesday’s meeting Smith said he feels sharrows on the existing Arch Bridge should suffice for bike access. “Maybe we already have the solution. And yet we spent all this money and meetings talking about a new solution. The bridge is already there, that’s perfectly acceptable.” He then claimed the sharrows been removed, and after reading an article about them on BikePortland, he questioned why. (The sharrows are still there, they are just worn off and very easy to miss, which sort of makes the point that they are useless.)
While commissioners Smith and O’Donnell continued to push for using the Arch Bridge and I-205 Bridge, ODOT and their consultant pointed out why they aren’t on the table.
ODOT and other regional partners (Clackamas County and Metro) know that in order to be positioned for the future, a new carfree crossing is imperative. They want to get the bridge planned and designed to get in line for potential federal funding and they say it’s a key piece of the millions of dollars being pumped into the area in an exciting mix of upcoming developments. There’s the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, the West Linn Waterfront Project, and new bike paths coming to Willamette Falls Drive and Highway 43 in West Linn.
“We must have a plan to get in line for funding,” ODOT’s Windsheimer said, “Given the additional destinations coming that will generate more demand. If we wait until they are built and demand is visible there may be fewer options available.”
Then ODOT finally heard some support. Oregon City Commissioner Rachel Lyles Smith (who wasn’t in attendance at the last meeting), said, “I do think it would be an amenity for Oregon City.”
And Oregon City’s City Manager Tony Konkol came in to smooth the rifts and share major support for a new bridge because of its potential economic impact. “Having a Tilikum Bridge-type connection — which in and of itself is a tourism draw — that then reduces trips… is a wonderful opportunity to think long term about what this could do for both communities, as well as connecting a regional bike-ped system.”
West Linn City Councilor Mary Baumgardner concurred. “I’m very excited about multimodal transportation myself. I think that it’s an excellent vision,” she said.
After hearing more support for the bridge, commissioners O’Donnell and Smith began to sound a bit more open to compromise. We’ll get to see if their position change as the process wears on.
Stay tuned for an online open house to view alignment options which is slated to launch on March 29th. Learn more on ODOT’s official project website.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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