Portland asks for up to $47 million in federal funding for key infrastructure projects

East 122nd Ave, one of the most dangerous streets in Portland, could see an influx of federal funding. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed last year, has given Portland an opportunity to fund several key projects.

While this funding will be competitive – many other agencies across the country are lining up to fix their neglected infrastructure – the Portland Bureau of Transportation thinks we stand a chance to receive funding for several projects.

“We’ve had our sleeves rolled up for a while in Portland, and we’ve developed some really good projects that we think can move forward,” PBOT Analyst Mark Lear said at Wednesday’s Portland City Council meeting. “We think we’re in a strong position.”

On Wednesday, Portland City Council agreed to send off applications for up to $47 million in federal funding, distributed between the following projects:

  • ‘Safe Systems on 122nd Avenue’ plan to address safety needs on east Portland’s 122nd Ave via the 122nd Avenue Plan. PBOT will ask for $20 million in federal Safe Streets for All funds with a $5 local match from Fixing Our Streets funds to make it safer to walk, bike and use transit on 122nd Ave via a variety of proposed projects.
  • Burgard Bridge Replacement – $16 million from the federal Railroad Crossing Elimination Program (RCEP) with a local match of $4 million to replace the Burgard Bridge in north Portland. According to PBOT, bridge is “a critical link in the transportation network in North Portland, particularly for heavy freight movement, and is in very poor condition and seismically vulnerable,” making it a high priority for funding.
  • Central Eastside Railroad Crossing Elimination Study –  $1-1.5 million from the RCEP to “study in detail the persistent and growing issue of long freight train blockages of multiple at-grade railroad crossings in the Central Eastside and identify projects and strategies to address these issues.” The city will provide a $400k in-kind match from already-budgeted General Transportation Revenue in the planning division budget. (Check out our recent story on this issue.)

PBOT says that if these grants are awarded, the resourced projects wouldn’t change PBOTs current budget allocations.

In addition to these three Portland-initiated projects, City Council also officially gave their support to the Oregon Department of Transportation’s $100 million grant application to the federal Reconnecting Communities Pilot Program. This program provides $1 billion in funding over the next 5 years to mitigate some of the damage urban highways have caused to many places in America (as detailed visually in the NY Times this week).

This $100 million grant would give the state, city and its community partner, Albina Vision Trust (AVT), an initial investment to construct I-5 freeway caps over the new Rose Quarter expansion to “reconnect” the lower Albina neighborhood.

PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty demonstrated strong support for this project at Wednesday’s Council meeting, appearing relieved that the city, state and AVT could finally come to an agreement on the I-5 freeway expansion. (Those who are more wary of ODOT’s intentions with the freeway expansion, however, are unlikely to be satisfied by the agreement.)

“If you’d have told me a year or a year and a half ago that we would be here in partnership with ODOT, Albina Vision Trust and PBOT, I would have told you that you were out of your mind,” Hardesty said. “But the reality is that the Rose Quarter project is now in a place where we have the potential to get significant federal resources to help reimagine how we reconnect the community that was torn apart by previous freeway expansion projects.”

Albina Vision Trust members will return to Council before the October deadline for this grant and provide more information about their plan for this grant funding, as well as their plans to apply for a planning grant for what to do with the freeway caps once they’re constructed.

According to PBOT, these won’t be the only opportunities for the city to get federal funds through the IIJA over the next five years. We’ll keep you posted on how these projects move forward.

City will seek federal grant to study southeast train crossing delays

View of the tracks looking west from Bob Stacey Crossing toward SE 12th Avenue and downtown Portland. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

People are fed up with being at the mercy of Union Pacific trains that rumble through inner southeast Portland every day. The trains create an impenetrable barrier (unless you risk hopping through them) and long traffic delays that have frustrated locals and everyone who uses nearby roads and bike paths for many years. Now, thanks to a new federal grant program with funding to mitigate the impacts of problematic railroad crossings, something might finally give.

The problem

(Map: BikePortland)

How big of a deal is this? This summer a Brooklyn neighborhood advocate led a Pedalpalooza ride and published a website about it to share tips on how to avoid it.

The tracks come into Portland from the southeast via Brooklyn Yard and follow SE McLoughlin Blvd up to SE 17th Ave, then line up with the Willamette River’s eastern bank until they veer north up to Vancouver (or vice versa). The portion of the tracks north of Powell Blvd and south of Stark St causes the most disruptions, with frequent blockages for people trying to go north-south through the area. Recently, the problem has worsened because of changes in Union Pacific operations to increase train lengths, making it much more difficult to get around them.

This area also lines up with heavily-used bikeways and obstructs what would otherwise be some of the smoothest bike routes in the city. For example, you might have an uninterrupted ride west on the Clinton Street greenway toward the Tilikum Crossing before having to stop at the tracks. People traveling from south of the tracks might have easier access to the Tilikum, but they suffer the same fate when trying to go north.

While people biking and walking have more options for crossing the tracks compared to someone stuck in their car these options aren’t always available. Most notably, the Bob Stacey Overcrossing elevators over the tracks at SE 14th are notoriously unreliable, making it impossible to use for people who can’t climb the stairs and/or lift their bikes up them.

People using public transit suffer as well. I’ve watched the MAX orange line train depart from the Clinton and SE 12th Ave station without me because of an unrelenting freight train, and passengers on the TriMet bus lines that run through the area are stuck in the same situation as people in cars. And TriMet’s $175 million Division Transit Project to bring faster bus service to the Division corridor opens next month on a route that will use the Tilikum Crossing to travel from inner southeast to the south waterfront. Major train-related blockages are incompatible with an “express” bus route.

“The train blockages encourage unsafe behavior. Drivers might try to beat the gates if they see a train might be sitting there for a long time, and people walking and biking will sometimes hop the trains, which is really unsafe. We have a high level of community concern [about this].”

-Zef Wagner, PBOT

The advocacy

A train rolling north near Water Ave and SE Taylor Street. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

Last year, members of the Central Eastside Industrial Council and Hosford Abernethy and Brooklyn Neighborhood groups put together a Change.org petition asking the Portland Bureau of Transportation to address the frequent train blockages, saying railroad intersections in this area “need major improvements to keep the roads safe for all and easy to commute, and address concerns of  increased carbon emissions.”

In the comments section of the Change.org petition, people recounted their experiences waiting at the train tracks with real emotion and said it hurts local businesses and impacts where people decide to live.

“I moved to SE Portland thinking it was a reasonable commute from work. That was because I had been lucky enough to avoid the train the first couple times I visited. Now I plan pretty much every trip around avoiding this train, which adds time driving longer routes or through construction zones. It’s ridiculous. Can’t wait to move out of this area for this reason.” one commenter said.

“This regularly impacts my travel and more recently I am just avoiding this area and nearby businesses altogether due to chance of being stuck behind trains,” another person wrote.

Mobility in the central eastside is on a roll right now with the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry District plan, the new Blumenauer Bridge, and renewed interest in the Green Loop. Unpredictable and long heavy rail crossings could pull the brakes on all that momentum.

The solution?

At Tuesday night’s City of Portland Pedestrian Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting, PBOT planner Zef Wagner said the city hears these concerns and are working to tackle the problem – or at least start to figure out how.

The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year includes a grant program for railroad crossing elimination projects across the country, providing funding for “highway-rail or pathway-rail grade crossing improvement projects that focus on improving the safety and mobility of people and goods.” This is a $600 million national competitive grant program with $18 million allocated to planning studies, which PBOT wants to snag $1 million of to conduct the Central Eastside Railroad Crossing Elimination Study.

Josh Hetrick (in black) led a ride about the tracks back in April. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

“We think this would be really competitive for this program, because those train blockages encourage unsafe behavior. Drivers might try to beat the gates if they see a train might be sitting there for a long time, and people walking and biking will sometimes hop the trains, which is really unsafe,” Wagner said at the meeting. “And we have a high level of community concern [about this].”

With this study, PBOT would look at the feasibility of more grade-separated crossings or undercrossings, as well as potential non-infrastructure solutions like wayfinding to give people information ahead of time about when trains are coming. Grant applications are due in early October, and Wagner asked the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committees to consider writing letters of support for the project.

Brooklyn neighborhood advocate and self-appointed train track crossing educator Josh Hetrick has advocated for more access across the train tracks. He said he sympathizes with people aggravated by this problem and has felt it himself, too.

“When long blockages occur, there are tons of cars idling. Our neighborhood already has some of the worst air quality in the city (due to highways, the rail yard, heavy freight traffic, a TriMet garage, and other industrial sites) and idling emissions just compound that,” Hetrick told me. “It’s just one more thing to deal with each time you leave the house and need to cross the tracks. You don’t have to wonder ‘Can I use the road today?’ with most other roads.”

New website and video help you avoid freight train delays in inner southeast

Josh Hetrick (in black) discussing railroad crossings at a Bike Loud ride back in April. (Photo: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

You may even find yourself looking forward to your next freight train barricade so you can experiment with your newfound knowledge.

It’s a tale as old as time for people who bike in Portland: you’re hurriedly biking across the central eastside or the rail-dominated Brooklyn neighborhood when an obstructing freight train dooms any hope you had of getting to your destination on time.

Though you might think the only course of action is to wait by the tracks and angrily attempt to will the train to move with sheer brainpower (or dangerously try to jump in between the boxcars, which we do not recommend) there’s another way! Bike and accessibility advocate Josh Hetrick has developed a helpful guide to bypassing the train tracks so you’ll never dread the sound of a train horn again.

On Hetrick’s ‘Train in Vain’ website, you can find a variety of solutions to crossing train tracks at the intersections at SE 11th, 12th and Milwaukie and SE 8th Ave, as well as the intersections in the central eastside. This guide is particularly informative for people who need to cross the tracks south of Division Street in the inner eastside, which you have to do in order to get to the Tilikum Crossing from the north.

The Bob Stacey Crossing was built for this purpose and is the most direct path across these tracks, but its elevators have been unreliable, making it inaccessible for people in wheelchairs and difficult to use for people with heavy bikes that don’t fit in the bike gutter. If you get to the Bob Stacey crossing and the elevators are down, Hetrick has other suggestions that you may not have thought of, which he outlines and provides detailed directions for on his website.

Hetrick led a Pedalpalooza ride last week aptly titled ‘Wrong Side of the Tracks’ guiding people around these detours, and you can watch Amit Zinman’s video recap of the tour below to get a visual representation of how to cross the tracks. Study up, and you may even find yourself looking forward to your next freight train barricade so you can experiment with your newfound knowledge.

Who climbs over a train when they’re tired of waiting? These guys

Today Portlander Mark Graves (who happens to be a photographer and reporter for The Oregonian) just happened to be waiting at a train crossing at SE Clinton and 12th.

You won’t believe what happened next. Or maybe you will. Heck, maybe you’ve done it?

As you can see in the video he posted to Twitter, several people — tired of waiting for the train to move along – picked up their bikes and then climbed up onto and then over the train!

This seems bonkers to me. I’ve been held behind a few trains in this area over the years and I have to admit I’ve let my mind consider doing this; but I’d be too scared. Scared of the potential injury consequences and scared of getting caught and/or shamed if someone saw me do it (can you imagine the field day on local media and Twitter if “the BikePortland guy” got caught doing this?!).

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When I first saw Mark’s tweet, I figured a lot of people would use the video to confirm their bias against “those stupid bicyclists.” The reality is, behaviors like this are mode-agnostic. People do just as crazy things in their cars. Our friend Jessica Engelman said, “I’ve seen people in cars drive up onto the sidewalk, make a U-turn, then go the wrong way up a one-way street when stopped at that intersection by a long freight train in an attempt to drive around. So yes, some people in cars attempt to do the same thing.”

Long waits for trains is a big issue in the central eastside and inner southeast. The railroad companies still use manual switches, which means a human has to come outo and adjust the tracks by hand. We’ve heard TriMet is trying to get new, automatic switches paid for in their Division Transit Project so their new, “faster” buses, don’t get caught waiting.

Have you ever done this? Any ideas on a better solution than portaging bikes cyclocross-style or doing dangerous things in our cars to get through?

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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