There’s an interesting new twist in the debate over the Cement Road. A combination of climate change and Swan Island business concerns have the City of Portland, once again, looking at the road as a viable option to Going Street.
For the uninitiated, the Cement Road is a fabled route that connects Interstate Avenue at the Fremont Bridge to Swan Island. Even though most of it is privately owned by Union Pacific Railroad, its flat topography and direct connection to the central city has seduced bike commuters for years. The only other way to get to the 200 businesses and 10,000 jobs on Swan Island is N Going Street — which has a steep decline down to the river and includes a few hairy crossings of wide roads busy with large freight trucks.
But the Cement Rd isn’t without pitfalls. Yes it’s usually safe and traffic-free, but there are some sketchy rail crossings. Then there’s the fact that it’s illegal and you are always looking over your shoulder for rail security guards. In 2014, we reported on a woman who says she was hassled and bullied by a UPRR security person for riding on it. If railroad security doesn’t scare you off, you then have to contend with North Interstate Avenue to connect to Greeley and make your way onto Swan Island via Going. In 2013, we shared the story of a Swan Island commuter who was seriously injured in a collision with a driver on Interstate — and he was only using that route because he’d gotten busted by UPRR security for riding the Cement Road just a few months prior.
Now there’s a new idea in play: The Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) wants to apply for a federal planning grant to assess the feasibility of building a new levee along the Cement Road alignment. That levee would then have a new road and multi-use path on it — just like we have on Marine Drive.
This proposal was fleshed out in public for the first time (to my knowledge) at a meeting of the Portland Freight Committee this morning.
PBOT Planner Zef Wagner said the Swan Island Business Association is very keen on having a second road into the district in the event that Going St. is impassable due to an earthquake or other situation.
“I have no idea if it’s feasible or not, but it seems worth exploring,” Wagner said at today’s meeting. One of the main reasons this idea has gained attention at PBOT is because of how a major flood could damage Swan Island and UPRR’s Albina Railyard. A 500-year flood map presented by Wagner at the meeting made it clear that if we had a major flood event, most of the area would be underwater.
“These 500 -year floods are no longer 500-year floods,” Wagner continued. “They’re really happening every 50 years now because of climate change. If what happened to California this last year, where they got torrential downpours, like worse than they’ve ever seen… If that happened to us, the river would rise and a lot of these areas would flood without a levee.”
“We have a whole levee system for the Columbia River corridor; but we don’t have anything protecting this area.”
The flood and the business association aren’t the only thing on PBOT’s mind. A new Cement Road would also give them the chance to finally realize the vision for the North Portland Greenway Trail. That plan to extend the Eastbank Esplanade north all the way to Kelley Point Park, calls for a path along the Willamette and the Cement Road was always the preferred alignment.
Trails advocate Jim Sjulin is the person who suggested the idea to Wagner. “I think it is potentially a win-win for everybody,” he said in an interview with BikePortland. “It definitely merits a look.” In addition to preventing a flood, Sjulin thinks a levee could keep toxic railyard runoff from going into the river.
If PBOT ever embarked on a project like this, they’d have to navigate UPRR officials and freight truck advocates. At least on member of the PFC thinks it’s a bad idea. Committee member Bob Short, who works for building materials company CalPortland, said it would be a bad idea to “encourage pedestrian and bicycle traffic in an area that’s mostly used by trucks.” He also said PBOT shouldn’t re-litigate an issue he feels was resolved 20 years ago. “Why waste your money on something that ain’t gonna’ happen?” he told Wagner.
Wagner then pointed out that if it was ever built, there would be no mixing of trucking and bicycling traffic. “If this was going to happen, it would be a true mega-project. It would be full reconstruction of a new road.”
What about getting UPRR to play ball? Wagner thinks that dynamic has shifted in the past decade because the Albina Railyard isn’t as important to their business as it used to be. “I’ve also been told by Union Pacific and by people who talk to them, that things have changed.”
Whether or not they’ve changed enough to finally unlock the full potential of the Cement Road and open up an exciting new connection to north Portland remains to be seen.
PBOT will likely apply for a grant through the Biden Administration’s PROTECT program. The application would be due next month.