Budget concerns could nix plans for carfree bridge over Columbia Blvd in St. Johns

Drawing of bridge over N Columbia Blvd shared by Portland Parks bureau at an open house in 2020.

After several years of design, planning, and promises, the City of Portland says budget concerns might shelve plans for a bridge over Columbia Boulevard in St. Johns. Instead of a bridge over the wide arterial where large freight trucks rumble along at 40-50 mph, the Portland Parks & Recreation bureau has recommended to Parks Commissioner Dan Ryan that they should move forward with an at-grade crossing.

This decision has riled advocates who see the bridge as a key part of their visions and say they’ve been kept in the dark about its potential demise.

The bridge project has been planned since 2014 as part of the North Portland Greenway project and is a key link in the 40 Mile Loop. The bridge would take people from an existing paved path in Chimney Park, across Columbia Blvd, and onto another piece of path that would ultimately connect to Kelley Point Park, the lakes at Smith & Bybee Wetlands, and beyond.

A strong partnership between the City of Portland, Metro, and the Oregon Department of Transportation has come up with over $9.5 million allocated toward the bridge project so far. As recently as Spring of 2020, Portland Parks & Recreation held an open house for the project where they showed renderings of the bridge based on 30% design plans.

But now, PP&R says they don’t have enough money to complete the project and are recommending an at-grade crossing instead of a bridge over Columbia Blvd.

“NP Greenway and 40 Mile Loop have been strung along for years on this project, supporting multiple rounds of funding for the bridge,” said one advocate who reached out to BikePortland to share this news. “PP&R has not been transparent at all on this project. A bridge is called for in the original trail master plan and there’s been no public outreach from PP&R about change of plans.” 

According to a project briefing prepared for Commissioner Ryan, the funding problem stems primarily from an ODOT consultant on the project, engineering and design firm KPFF, who wants to revise their contract upward to the tune of $938,129. PP&R says when that amount is added to other expected costs, the project will end up with a price tag of $11.5 to $15.5 million — leaving them $2-6 million short with, “no currently identified funding sources to bridge the gap.”

Pending negotiations around an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) between Metro (who’s currently managing the project), ODOT, and PP&R seek to give PP&R sole responsibility for the project. That means, if the project moved forward with the bridge and it no other funding was identified, the City of Portland would be left alone holding the bag.

In the briefing for Commissioner Ryan, PP&R staff lay out three options: move forward with an at-grade crossing, continue with the bridge plan, or do nothing. PP&R staff recommend the at-grade crossing because they say it will allow the project to move forward within its existing budget. But even if that option moves forward, PP&R says it comes with several risks. Among them? “The Port [of Portland] freight community may push back due to impacts to traffic flow in this industrial area,” and “The general public could be disappointed at not getting a bridge.”

Construction on the bridge was expected to start next year.

Ultimately Ryan will have final say on which position the bureau takes and the issue will be discussed at a city council meeting soon. I’ve reached out to PP&R and Ryan’s office for comment and will update this post when I hear back. I’ve also heard that the boards of NP Greenway and 40 Mile Loop will hold emergency meetings to discuss the issue. Stay tuned.


UPDATE, 4:19: Commissioner Dan Ryan and Parks Director Adena Long strongly support the bridge and are actively appealing to Metro to find funding. Below is a comment Commissioner Ryan’s office sent to BikePortland:

“I wholeheartedly believe there needs to  be a bridge over Columbia Boulevard connecting Chimney Park with St. John’s Prairie.  I will be requesting that Metro Council fully fund this project to ensure safe pedestrian and bicycle crossing while maintaining the flow of traffic on Columbia Boulevard.”

UPDATE, 11/10 at 2:00 pm: NPGreenway, a nonprofit working to realize a riverfront path between the Eastbank Esplanade to Kelley Point Park, has released the following statement:

“We’re very unhappy that this bridge is being scuttled after many years of commitment from local government agencies. The bike and pedestrian bridge across North Columbia Boulevard would be a significant link on the 10-plus mile North Portland Willamette Greenway Trail, that is, in turn, a critical part of the 40-Mile Loop.

Despite promises to the public, PP&R has slow walked the Columbia Blvd Bridge for years, going back for additional funds each funding cycle, in total acquiring $9.5 million dollars. Since 2014, at least a half million dollars has been spent on design and engineering for the bridge.

Columbia Blvd is a busy freight route and PP&R’s proposal to replace the bridge with an at-grade crossing is dangerous for people and inefficient for truck traffic. It’s frightening to think of a mom or dad pushing a stroller across a 4-lane road with semi-trucks barreling along at 45
mile per hour.

We appreciate the recent announcement by Commissioner Ryan and PP&R Director Long that they support the bridge and are searching for additional funds. After so many delays North Portland residents and other future trail users deserve to have construction begin in 2024.”

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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Jacob A
Jacob A
5 months ago

I can’t help but feel anger towards both ODOT and PP&R. Both bureaus are completely incompetent when it comes to new projects and on maintenance.

Eric Leifsdad
Eric Leifsdad
5 months ago

Just close Columbia Blvd until motorists come up with the money to pay for their fast wide thruway to be safe.

Joe Adamski
Joe Adamski
5 months ago

An at-grade crossing would be a continual death trap. Should the at-grade crossing actually happen ( and it really should not…) be sure to name it the DAN RYAN CROSSING officially. He needs to own the decision.
pennywise and pound foolish

maccoinnich
5 months ago

If I’m reading the memo correctly, ODOT gave Metro $1.5 million in 2014. Almost a decade later, a little more than a third of that has been spent in an effort that has only gotten to 30% design.

I swear that a large part of the reason that public projects cost so much in the USA is the inability of public agencies to progress quickly. If this bridge had broken ground within a few years the construction costs would have been a lot lot lower than they are today.

cc_rider
cc_rider
5 months ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

If this bridge had broken ground within a few years the construction costs would have been a lot lot lower than they are today.

Good thought! Let’s create a committee to decide a path to study the problem. We are going to, of course, need a subcommittee to draft an RFP for a consultant who can help the committee and will, of course, need to do outreach to set-up a subcommittee to make recommendations about the consultant’s recommendatons. Utimately we will then need to do public outreach to make sure the consultants public outreach really outreached enough.

What problem we were talking about again?

MelK
MelK
5 months ago
Reply to  cc_rider

Comment of the week right here.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
5 months ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

the inability of public agencies to progress quickly

And this is exactly why we need a new government structure that empowers un-elected bureaucrats and reduces direct oversight and accountability!!!
.
Oh wait…

Fred
Fred
5 months ago
Reply to  pierre delecto

The key thing you are missing, pierre, is the fact that people who are recognized professionals in their fields – such as transportation – will be running transportation for Portland starting in 2025. Unlike today where rank amateurs are in charge of practically everything.

Portland city gov’t will have the same level of oversight and accountability as every other city gov’t in the US, so I don’t know what you expect. Other cities have been able to get a lot more done than Portland, but soon we will be able to catch up to them.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
5 months ago
Reply to  Fred

people who are recognized professionals in their fields

Who are among the most conservative people when it comes to moving away from our automobile-centric transportation system.

Atreus
Atreus
5 months ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

Yes, this appears to be one of those cursed projects that keeps getting delayed, which adds to the cost (inflation alone on a bridge can be massive), then gets delayed further as they seek more funding, then they get the funding but it’s not enough because the cost has gone up even more, and the cycle continues. This project has gotten “fully funded” like three times, at least, and keeps on getting delayed. This is especially common with bridges, because at a certain point you can’t value engineer a bridge any more–because you can’t build half a bridge. That’s why I actually think the at-grade crossing idea, while obviously a huge disappointment to many advocates, and definitely a black mark on the public agencies that failed to deliver the bridge, is probably the right move at this moment to actually get something built. If it’s a good fully-signalized crossing there’s no reason to think it won’t be safe.

Aaron
5 months ago
Reply to  Atreus

Something in my gut tells me that one of those horrible crossings with flashing yellow lights and a beg button that says “cars may not stop” isn’t off the table for the at-grade crossing.

Stephen Keller
Stephen Keller
5 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

I prefer the idea of massive steel posts that rise up out of the ground when vulnerable road users are in the crossing, something stout enough to halt a semi-tractor-trailor doing 50 mph.

Watts
Watts
5 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

Personally I love those crossings because I don’t need to wait until the signal phases works around to my turn. You wait until the 2 lanes nearest you have stopped, then cross to the median island, then when the remaining 2 lanes are stopped, you go the rest of the way. I cross Powell at one of these crossings several times a week, despite the availability of two fully signalized crossings along my route. I rarely wait more than 5 seconds to cross.

I’ve never once had a close call.

lvc
lvc
5 months ago
Reply to  maccoinnich

I agree, the amount of money they’ve spent to accomplish so little is kind of absurd. For anyone who doesn’t want to click the link, this is the entire scope of work:

“●Multiuse trail bridge or street crossing over N. Columbia Boulevard.
● Trail approaches to the bridge or street crossing.
● Connection to an existing trail in Chimney Park.
● Redesign and resolution of parking and circulation at the Chimney Park maintenance, building and dog park entrance. (directed by pending conditional use decision).
● Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) at-grade crossing.
● Right of way dedication and street construction.”

They’ve literally blown $560,000 and almost a decade only get to a 30% design for that piddly scope of work? Plus Kpoof/ODOT needs another almost million dollars to finish the design? It’s a pedestrian bridge. Put a pier in the turn lane, two ~75′ span glulam beams or gluelam trusses if you want to get fancy and a basic deck to get over Columbia Blvd, a couple more pairs of glulams for the approaches. Or use steel, whatever. Ridiculous.

Aaron Brown
Aaron Brown
5 months ago

Sure is wild how ODOT has literal tens of millions of dollars to blow on PR and planning for billions of dollars of freeway expansion but somehow has to plead poverty for small bike/ped projects they’ve already committed to. Wish Commissioner Dan Ryan would show some leadership and demand that ODOT fund this project instead of the proposed Rose Quarter Freeway Expansion, which now costs $1.9 BILLION (that’s $1900 million) and has spent $110 million on greenwashing PR and planning since 2017.

pierre delecto
pierre delecto
5 months ago
Reply to  Aaron Brown

The slightly smaller highway project “bridge” your coalition is literally begging for would also cost a billion and change. But, of course, their highway project “bridge” is greenwashing PR but our highway project “bridge” is “climate justice”.

Pkjb
Pkjb
5 months ago

Very disappointing to hear. Can we crowd source this thing? Kickstarter or something to fill the gap to get your name on the bridge? Maybe some Phil knight bucks? I’ll chip in $100.

Dan Keeney
Dan Keeney
5 months ago

I would hope the city examines likely usage numbers and impact when considering how to deploy funds. And if they were to do that, I suspect this project would be used by a relatively small number of cyclists compared to conceivable projects that could benefit thousands of cyclists per week.

Nick
Nick
5 months ago

Interesting that “design a cheaper bridge” is not on the list of options

Atreus
Atreus
5 months ago
Reply to  Nick

They’ve surely already value-engineered the bridge as much as possible. Even a “cheap” bridge is massively expensive. And you can’t build half a bridge.

EP
EP
5 months ago

So where do the extra funds go if they do the cheaper, much crappier at-grade crossing? Do we get some bike improvements elsewhere on the 40-mile loop?

Allan Rudwick
Allan
5 months ago

I don’t understand why we can’t build something and then upgrade it later. If the bridge is really going to cost 16 million, maybe we would be better off building out our network of trails in other areas instead of one bridge. I personally don’t see having a traffic light to wait at as a major problem worthy of that much money to solve. I’m excited for this path to be completed, signal or not

cc_rider
cc_rider
5 months ago

An at grade crossing here seems outright negligently dumb. I spend a lot of time in Chimney Park at the dog park. I’d guess the ambient speed on the this stretch of road is more like 55 – 80 mph. No amount of signage is going to make crossing it on foot safe.

I’m not totally sure why this project is being prioritized. I’d love if we could get some functional infrastructure like the N Willamette Greenway or grade separated bike path on Highway 30 that would make it easier to access the rest of the city.

Atreus
Atreus
5 months ago
Reply to  cc_rider

There’s no way the at-grade crossing won’t be a signal (like a full red light indication for cars/trucks when people are crossing) on a road like this. If that isn’t the plan, there’s no way they should build it.

cork
cork
5 months ago
Reply to  Atreus

The bridge wasn’t planned because we thought it would be nice or have a good view. The problem is that the at-grade crossing would be at the bottom of two hills. Trucks coming from either direction would have to come to a stop while traveling downhill–inherently more difficult.That’s why the bicycle, freight and trail communities came together and pushed for the bridge.

Todd/ Boulanger
Todd/ Boulanger
5 months ago

Oh man, Ugh!

If the over-crossing is truly “DOA”…and ‘only’ a ground level crossing is achievable, all design options below need effective speed reduction and:

  1. road diet with street surface treatment (bring the context of the park across the highway) and landscaped refuge island
  2. an “accordion pedestrian crossing” (separating the lanes with wide 12FT wide pedestrian refuges…widen the footprint of the roadway into the park segments)
  3. full signal intersection (cheapest but less ideal from a context sensitivity / traffic safely…and high delay)
Aaron
5 months ago

The Port [of Portland] freight community may push back due to impacts to traffic flow in this industrial area

Then I would encourage them to make a donation to close the funding gap in order to avoid affecting their private business interests. The roads do not belong to them just because they make money from the use of our public infrastructure. Other people need to use them safely as well so the freight businesses can either settle for the city funded option that delays traffic on their profitable route or they can add some private funding to build the more expensive option that avoids affecting their profit center.

Watts
Watts
5 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

The roads do not belong to them

Would you support asking the real owners of the road what they would choose to prioritize if they had, say, $5M to spend, and pinning the future of this project to the outcome of that collective decision?

Aaron
5 months ago
Reply to  Watts

I’m not sure it would have a different outcome because in practice they appear to be beholden to those same businesses who feel entitled to the road. Having said that, I still think it would be better for the decision making to be up to ODOT/PBOT/PP&R at least on paper since they’re public organizations which ostensibly serve the public interest and don’t explicitly exist to further the profitability of any one private business or group of businesses.

cork
cork
5 months ago
Reply to  Aaron

Please keep in mind that this was a joint effort with freight, bicycle and trail communities concerned about safety of pedestrians and bicyclists. If I recall correctly, the Port and freight interests came up with part of the money. It’s worth remembering that freight on this section of road increased about ten years ago because they voluntarily abandoned Fessenden, which was the original direct freight road to the St. Johns bridge but has become more residential.

John Castle
John Castle
5 months ago

Anything that impacts freight must be stopped! -PoP & Freight lobbyist

But 9 years? That’s not a project that’s a discussion turned into a pipe dream. Speaking of unfinished PP&R projects is the st Helen’s road forest park entrance ever going to inch past 90% completion?

Andrew S
Andrew S
5 months ago

Does PP&R/PBOT estimate the ROI for projects like this? As in how much economic activity will this project generate and/or how much social benefit there is to the project? I don’t live in St. Johns, but I question the relative benefit of connecting Chimney park to the old city dump.

That being said, I’d be stoked to shift to an at grade crossing and spend the remainder on world-class off-road cycling facilities at the old city dump and give people and chickens more of a reason to cross the road in the first place. Old city dump could be an great location for Portland’s premiere XC, CX, and dirt jump venue. Just imagine what could be built with $13M…
https://www.singletracks.com/mtb-trails/northwest-arkansas-13-million-can-build/

Jeff S
Jeff S
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew S

This would connect to a planned trail system that would allow you to get to Kelley Pt. Park. When that trail system will be built I do not know. Until then, the bridge seems somewhat pointless.

Scott Mizée
5 months ago
Reply to  Jeff S

Jeff…. unfortunately, that is how we build trails in this part of the country. And as much as I’d love to have a world-class off-road cycling facility the old landfill site will not meet even the most basic criteria. The area where the trail is proposed to go is strictly limited and prohibits people from going off-trail.

Andrew S
Andrew S
5 months ago
Reply to  Scott Mizée

Maybe world class is a bit of an overstatement, but The Dutch did it. Not sure what about our location precludes a facility like Col Du Vam in Wijster. https://youtu.be/qbZhHes_oDU?si=YoPcdNdvf6DkE23J

I’m not fundamentally opposed to building a bridge over Columbia Blvd, but I’m having a hard time seeing the value if the funding comes largely out of PP&R’s budget. I’d be interested in seeing what cost/benefit metrics are used to rank this and similar projects. If funding the bridge does not preclude funding for alternative projects that could be funded, then fine. But don’t pay for a bridge to the dump and then tell me there isn’t any money to take action on any other PP&R or ORCMP priorities.

Scott Mizée
5 months ago
Reply to  Andrew S

Andrew, I guess the immediate answer I have is, it’s not just “a bridge to the dump.” It is simply a gap in npGREENWAY and the 40 Mile Loop trail system. This is a key link to get to Kelly Point Park, the northern terminus of the North Portland Greenway.

Oh and I love the idea of Col du VAM. I’d be more than happy to back that is here if we can get the scientists to agree with us! ☺️

Bridge Builder
5 months ago

A little more than two years ago, a bridge was completed about a mile away. Some
how the money ($23.5 million) for that was found because stopped trains were occasionally blocking truck traffic.

maxD
maxD
5 months ago

PBOT is showing their incompetence and indifference when it comes to planning and design of bike and pedestrian infrastructure. There was a time when PBOT had talented professionals dedicated to planning and design and were committed to created attractive, functional City-wide improvements. Those groups were broken up and the function within PBOT is lost. Some talented people remain, but the focus of the bureau is just not there and it shows. It is an embarrassment for our City and PBOT that these funds were squandered and this project was so badly mismanaged.