“I am very worried that by being timid, the county risks ending up with a new bridge that won’t meet the needs of the coming century.”
— Andrew Holtz, Multnomah County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee
As cities across the Pacific Northwest grapple with the possibility of a devastating earthquake that current infrastructure is largely unprepared for, a crucial project underway in Portland is the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge.
According to Multnomah County’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the project, most of the bridges in Portland crossing the Willamette River are expected to be unusable immediately after an earthquake. Though bridges like the Tilikum Crossing and the new Sellwood Bridge are expected to survive an earthquake, neither of them will suffice. Neither the west nor east approach to Tilikum Crossing is seismically resilient, and the new Sellwood Bridge is too far from downtown.
Plans to construct a new Burnside Bridge have been underway for several years, and many stakeholders have seen the new project as an opportunity not only to prepare the region for a possible earthquake, but to also improve Portland’s bike and pedestrian infrastructure, as well as potentially add a new park along the Eastbank Esplanade.
The Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project was initially expected to cost more than $800 million, and included 40-feet of biking and walking space, as well as a ramp from the Esplanade up to the bridge deck. But starting in June, Multnomah County officials began to appear more hesitant to spend so much on this project, and have been weighing options for cost-cutting measures that would sacrifice space for biking and eliminate the Esplanade ramp. Since the pandemic, officials say the price of the bridge project has risen to about $1 billion due to inflation. With the failure of last year’s Ballot Measure 26-218, the county is looking to cut costs wherever possible.
These proposals for cost-cutting have been met with concern by advocates for car-alternative transportation. Last Wednesday, the Multnomah County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee approved a letter to the county to reconsider narrowing the bike and pedestrian paths and to commit to a ramp that would make the bridge accessible to all — without having to rely on elevators which are very prone to being out of order for large periods of time.
The letter brings up three main points of concern: that a narrowed bridge will fail to meet emergency response, rebuilding and personal transportation needs immediately following a major earthquake; that failing to make specific and firm commitments to pedestrian, bicycle and other wheeled transportation infrastructure “squanders the opportunity to lead the way toward safer and convenient active transportation in our region” and that these shortcomings put the county’s adopted Climate Action Plan at risk.
For more than two years, climate activists have been concerned about how the new Burnside Bridge plan focuses on drivers even more than the current bridge does. At a PBOT Bicycle Advisory Committee meeting in September 2019, members brought up their concerns about how a plan to expand auto lanes fails to consider the urgent need to take drastic measures to curb the climate emergency. That concern is still very present today.
“The new Burnside Bridge is the largest infrastructure investment the County has made in our lifetimes. It must be a bridge that will help us meet the challenge of the climate crisis. When weighing project budget options, we must not undercut progress toward reducing vehicle emissions,” the recent letter from the MCBPAC reads. “That necessity includes incorporating future expansion of bus and streetcar transit on the Burnside Bridge. The County must ensure that the design of the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge fully aligns with the County’s Climate Action Plan.”
The MCBPAC letter also points out that after a major earthquake, people will be unlikely to be able to fuel their cars with gas or electricity — even if there are still drivable routes intact. Biking and walking will be the most practical forms of personal transportation, so an earthquake ready Burnside Bridge needs to prioritize these methods of transportation.
“I am very worried that by being timid, the county risks ending up with a new bridge that won’t meet the needs of the coming century plus. This project…is a test of whether the county is actually committed to its 2015 Climate Action Plan. The cost-cutting proposals indicate they are not fully committed to making investments that will help reduce motor vehicle emissions, in part by encouraging people to shift to walking, biking and transit,” MCBPAC Chair Andrew Holtz wrote in an email to BikePortland.
Even if many details of the bridge are still up in the air, Holtz says he fears what is proposed now will set the tone for future planning.
“I am concerned that what is put forward now will become the high-water mark. If we don’t get firm commitments now to path width, transit lanes, and ramps and paths that offer safe and convenient connections to the Eastbank Esplanade, I’m afraid that what actually gets built could be woefully inadequate,” Holtz writes.
If you want to weigh in, please submit a public comment on the proposed budget cuts by the end of the day today, December 14.
CORRECTION, 3:48 pm: This story initially claimed that the new Burnside Bridge would be the only Willamette River bridge that can withstand a major quake in the Portland area. That is not true. We regret the error.