The Bob Stacey Crossing opened on November 10th, 2020. In the 15 months since, at least one of the elevators have been closed for about one-third of the time.
“That’s a mark against us as a community that wants to provide for bike and pedestrian access as we provide for motor vehicle access.”
— Bob Stacey, former Metro councilor
The bridge and its elevators are a crucial piece of infrastructure for many people who need a safe and efficient way to cross the five sets of rail tracks when the trains blocks nearby streets. When it opened, the bridge was hailed by the Portland Bureau of Transportation as “a safe, convenient way for people biking, walking, or using a mobility device to cross the MAX Orange Line and Union Pacific Railroad.”
But it hasn’t turned out that way. And the crossing’s namesake has taken notice.
Bob Stacey, a giant of regional land-use planning and former Metro councilor who resigned his post in October due to a brain disease, shared with me via phone today that the issues with this bridge are an illustration of a larger failure to prioritize non-car infrastructure. “It speaks to the imbalance between the amount of resources that get scraped together to build new stuff without having a clear commitment to how we maintain it in the future,” Stacey said. “And I think that falls heaviest on forms of transportation viewed as less important than cars.”
Stacey added that with citywide street maintenance needs, he feels it’s wrong to single this one out. “But it’s a pretty iconic example,” he said. “It’s now is a rusty relic instead of a bridge that works for people.”
Why don’t folks just use the stairs?
There are about 120 stairs and many people aren’t strong enough to lift their bike up them — including Stacey, who said he’s used the bridge many times with his bike in the past, but now would have “significant difficulty” walking up and down them. The wheel gutters are also not always easy to use, especially when slick with rain or when folks have heavy bikes. For riders with three-wheeled bikes, cargo bikes, or bikes pulling a trailer, stair use is a non-starter. And of course the stairs are a complete no-go for wheelchair users.
We first heard from frustrated Portlanders about the broken elevators on September 2nd, 2021, just ten months after the bridge first opened. First it was the south elevator on Gideon Street that went down. The City of Portland acknowledged on September 28th that the 100 horsepower motor that runs the elevator car had failed and they expected a new one to arrive in October. On October 26th PBOT said the elevator was still out of service and that the repair had been impacted by “pandemic-related delays.”
“PBOT staff assured us they had learned from the design flaws at those other facilities, and that the mistakes would not be repeated.”
— Chris Eykamp, Hosford-Abernethy neighborhood
While Covid and supply chain issues might be a legitimate excuse, it’s important to note that PBOT has had a terrible maintenance record with these elevators long before the pandemic. The Gibbs Street Bridge elevator over I-5 is also notorious for its unreliability.
And beyond any part being on the fritz on the Bob Stacey Crossing, we’ve heard many complaints from users about vandalism and other non-hardware issues that have made the elevators unrideable.
Last February someone filed a complaint with TriMet (they built the bridge, PBOT owns and maintains it) that read, “In addition to the graffiti there is a pile of human feces in the corner of one elevator [for several weeks]… It’s only been open for less than a year and it is an embarrassment to say the least. If this had happened anywhere else — bus, MAX, streetcar — it would have been dealt with immediately because…. it’s a biohazard!”
On November 17th of last year, PBOT announced the south elevator was back up and running. Unfortunately the north elevator broke down shortly thereafter and has been out of service ever since.
On December 21st, Hosford-Abernethy Neighborhood District Chair Chris Eykamp wrote a letter (PDF) to PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty that reminded her how they warned the city this would happen. “While the facility was being designed, HAND expressed concerns about the unreliability and frequent breakdown of the elevators serving other recently built facilities,” states the letter. “PBOT staff assured us they had learned from the design flaws at those other facilities, and that the mistakes would not be repeated.”
HAND pushed for a ramp instead of an elevator and stairs, but the City of Portland has repeatedly opted against ramps because they are much more complicated to design and expensive to build.
“Please fix the elevator,” the HAND letter states. “If that cannot be done in short order, please ask PBOT to move the portapotty and keep the underpass clear of debris and hazards until it has been repaired.” Eykamp says so far he’s received no response from Hardesty’s office.
A related issue is that the recommended detour route via the multi-use path along SE Powell under 17th Ave has been blocked for several months. A city-sanctioned porta-potty has been moved into a narrow spot on the path and makes passage difficult and dangerous when combined with other items scattered all over the path. Several people also live on the covered portion of the path.
Neighborhood residents aren’t the only ones who’ve applied pressure on PBOT to address these issues.
Central Eastside Industrial Council (CEIC) Executive Director Kate Merrill brought up the elevators at a meeting of the PBOT Freight Advisory Committee last month. “The Bob Stacey Crossing was built so that more pedestrians and bikes could get across. Unfortunately the elevator has been broken down for several months now,” she explained to a high-level PBOT staffer at the meeting. “So I would just like to make that a priority because we we’ve seen so many people get hurt trying to cross [the tracks].”
At that same meeting, Michelle Sprague testified during a public comment period that the porta-potty on the detour route, “Is now blocking half of the route and the neighborhood association hasn’t been able to find out who can move it.”
“I use a walker and a tricycle to get around, and I believe that attempting that detour would be unsafe.”
— Serenity Ebert, disability rights activist
As of this week, the porta-potty is still there but it has been burned to a crisp and is unusable.
On February 10th, well-known local advocate Betsy Reese looped several city staffers and fellow advocates into an email thread about the elevators and the path blockage. “It is imperative that these elevators be maintained operational… This is how you are directing people using mobility devices, people with strollers, cargo bikes, adaptive bicycles, etc. on this heavily-used Clinton-to-the-River Greenway route?”
Activist Serenity Ebert, who rides a three-wheeled trike and leads a group fighting for accessibility on TriMet, replied to the thread. “Why has this elevator has been broken for so long?” she wrote. “Your detour for people unable to use stairs is unacceptable. Your directions are unclear, confusing, and appear to direct people to an unsafe route. I use a walker and a tricycle to get around, and I believe that attempting that detour would be unsafe.”
One day later PBOT Interim Director of Communications and Public Involvement Hannah Schafer replied. She said “an an unknown power surge” is what caused the north elevator to fail and that a similar fate had befallen the south elevator. “Our capital delivery team has been working with the general contractor to find the exact cause of the outage and determine next steps so that we can hopefully prevent this electrical issue from happening again in the future,” Schafer explained.
A new motor has been ordered, she added, but “due to the global supply chain issues, we are unable to know when the motor will be delivered and repairs can be made.”
“Due to the global supply chain issues, we are unable to know when the motor will be delivered and repairs can be made.”
— Hannah Schafer, PBOT
As for the detour route issues, Schafer wrote, “PBOT staff have submitted work requests internally and with our city partners to start clearing those sidewalks of obstructions (trash and encampments), but it could take some time for that work to be completed, given the current demand for such services.”
Schafer also pointed out that they now provide free ADA accommodation when the elevator is out of service. People can access that service by calling a 24/7 hotline at 503-865-4WAV (4928) and use the code RIDE.
PBOT has also published a new website where you can check the status of their elevators and find detour information. And since they apparently have no way of monitoring elevator status, Schafer said they rely on the public to notify them of any outages.
One pair of users eagerly awaiting the reopening are Bob Stacey’s two young grandchildren, who refer to it as “Bapa’s Bridge.” They used to bike over it to get to school before their grandpa’s picture adorned either end. But because they’re too small to carry their bikes up the stairs, they now go a different way.
“That’s a mark against us as a community that wants to provide for bike and pedestrian access as much as we provide for motor vehicle access,” Stacey says. “And I regret that.”
— On January 6th of this year, BikePortland filed a public records request for elevator maintenance records. We’re still waiting to see them.
[Video below was posted to BikePortland Instagram yesterday]