Flood risks lead to Swan Island levee and path idea

Looking south toward the Fremont Bridge on the Cement Road. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

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.

Flood map shown at Portland Freight Committee meeting today. Black dotted line is potential future levee and path.

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.”

“I think it is potentially a win-win for everybody. It definitely merits a look.”

– Jim Sjulin, 40-Mile Loop

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.

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)

Founder of BikePortland (in 2005). Father of three. North Portlander. Basketball lover. Car owner and driver. If you have questions or feedback about this site or my work, feel free to contact me at @jonathan_maus on Twitter, via email at maus.jonathan@gmail.com, or phone/text at 503-706-8804. Also, if you read and appreciate this site, please become a supporter.

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Nick
Nick
9 months ago

> Why waste your money on something that ain’t gonna’ happen?

I would love to see the PFC get busted down to size, the cumulative effect of their regressive attitude toward anything other than moving more trucks (which I realize is their charter) is really disappointing, especially after their lack of compassion after the truck driver that killed Sarah Pliner last year.

I wish there was more desire and action around restoring waterfront habitat, with so many biking areas around water in the Portland area it’s really shocking how much of our critical wetland areas have been destroyed by industry and covered up with concrete (especially when the building is abandoned or unused for many years).

Allan Rudwick
Allan
9 months ago

This path is cool but the real potential opportunity is moving that whole railyard to build a new district of the city for humans

Amit Zinman
9 months ago
Reply to  Allan

Portland started out, as the name states as port town, but now is the time to understand that the city has unique culture that could become world famous (it is popular in Tokyo for some reason). Railyards and truck depots at this point are just in the way of Portland realizing its potential.

Chris I
Chris I
9 months ago
Reply to  Allan

If we’re going to move a rail yard, we should be moving the Brooklyn yard. The impact from pollution down there is much higher, and it really disrupts the grid in SE.

ShadowsFolly
ShadowsFolly
9 months ago

Even if, a big if mind you, the City actually started enforcing the laws it would likely take years before any dent would be made in the numerous law breakers, from speeders to car thieves.

Lenny Anderson
Lenny Anderson
9 months ago

Sounds like a great idea! But who pays?  I was at Boise Cascade R&D on Swan Island (now Daimler Bldg. 9) in 1996 when the River crested at 1.5 feet below our first floor. That was a 100 year flood (though one before that was in 1964!, which I also witnessed). The 500 year flood will return the River to its old channel, now the Swan Island Lagoon, and swamp the Albina Yard. The flood plain of the Rhein River in Dusseldorf is a meadow where sheep are pastured until that river floods…we need more of that.

Will
Will
9 months ago
Reply to  Lenny Anderson

I imagine you could pay for it with a TIF district.

Nick
Nick
9 months ago
Reply to  Lenny Anderson

Not quite the same thing, but there have been and will continue to be large amounts of work to keep the Mississippi from going down the Atchafalaya. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_River_Control_Structure
The sheep thing sounds like a better use of the space to me than a rail yard.

Amit Zinman
9 months ago
Reply to  Lenny Anderson

As the article says, they’re applying for a federal grant.

Fred
Fred
9 months ago

Couldn’t help laughing when the tile for a story from exactly ten years ago popped up under this story:

Mayor Hales in Union Pacific / Cement Road talks: “Going very well”

Hales’ Communications Director Dana Haynes added that, “Apparently the talks are going very well. UP has been at the table, willing to talk, the whole way.”

So funny. Reminds me of an old saying:

“The road to Portland is paved with good intentions.”

Lenny Anderson
Lenny Anderson
9 months ago

Sad that with funds so short, PBOT still staffs the PFC, a group of well heeled
advocates for more and wider roads in the region!
re Mayor Hales. He did meet with the UPRR about 10 years ago, and the railroad agreed to consider vacating their bypass track that runs along Greeley for a trail.
PBOT, in partnership with npGreenway, did an exhaustive design, but costs, especially for a new bridge to get a trail from Swan Island to the westside of Greeley south of Going, proved prohibitive.
Also note that Alta Planning did a simple redesign of the Ash Grove Cement Road that would have improved bike and freight safety at very low cost, basically paint and a fence. UPRR was not interested in this option.
The Road is a de facto “2nd access road” to Swan Island and is regularly used by some parcel delivery drivers. I am cheering on Swan Island businesses’ effort to make it legal for all users, except during night hours when rail cars are moved.

PeeWee
PeeWee
9 months ago

Cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good
No, cryin’ won’t help you, prayin’ won’t do you no good
When the levee breaks, mama, you got to move, ooh

blumdrew
9 months ago

Saying that California’s winter was wetter/worse than they have ever seen is Great Flood of 1862 erasure, and I won’t stand for it.