St. Johns Bridge Plan Ignores Chance to Reconnect

Editor’s Note: This appeared as an opinion piece today on Oregon Live with a summary in the printed edition of the O. We’re cross-posting it here to allow a little more exposure and discussion.

Portland’s Willamette River bridges connect east and west, north and south, uniting neighborhoods into one great city. Visitors marvel at the bridges’ beauty, variety, and utility; Portlanders adorn our walls with posters that celebrate the bridges’ engineering details as much as their lofty design.

Yet, as the $38 million upgrade of the 75-year-old St. Johns Bridge nears completion, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) is poised to miss a perfect opportunity to strengthen the connections among Portland communities.

The St. Johns Bridge is the only bridge spanning the Willamette River for five miles north or south. ODOT is currently planning to remodel the bridge in a way that endangers pedestrians and bicyclists, fails the freight community’s stated standards for trucks, and is nerve-wracking for everyday car commuters – even though all of these problems can be solved at no cost.

The bridge currently has four narrow traffic lanes, no bike lanes, and substandard sidewalks — an arrangement that makes everyone feel unsafe. Fast-moving twenty-ton trucks mix with cars and bicyclists in the roadway, and bicyclists try to share narrow, substandard sidewalks with pedestrians, as trucks zoom by.

Neighbors in St. Johns who want to safely bike or walk to landmark Forest Park, a short mile away via the St. Johns Bridge, might be advised to take a twelve-mile detour via the Broadway Bridge. In effect, North Portland is cut off from Northwest Portland for far too many people.

Yet instead of improving upon the situation, ODOT is planning to perpetuate it.

ODOT originally wanted to look at different bridge configurations, and spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars hiring outside consultants. Those consultants found that the pinch-points for travel happen at the ends of the bridge, and that “no capacity constraints or operational flaws on the bridge” would result from a new design, one that would use two wide travel lanes with shoulder areas mid-bridge.

Under pressure from special interests, ODOT simply ignored the facts at hand. The result, if it is allowed to go forward, is a bridge that will continue to be unsafe for the quarter of the area’s residents who cannot drive.

There is a solution that benefits neighbors, helps businesses move freight, creates transportation choices, and makes the bridge safer for everyone. Maintaining four lanes at the ends of the bridge, but having the middle of the bridge striped with two wide lanes and wide shoulders, would give everyone room to breathe, making it easy to share the road. Trucks, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians could all fit safely and comfortably.

Sadly, neighborhood disconnection is currently carrying the day. ODOT is buckling under to special interests, and ignoring the facts it spent our tax dollars to learn, as well as its obligation to provide safe facilities for all Portlanders.

The St. Johns Bridge is named after settler James Johns, who started the local ferry system across the Willamette River with a single rowboat in 1852. It’s disappointing that the bridge bearing his name has become a symbol of disconnection rather than connection.

Bridge renovations offer a once-in-a-generation chance to make real improvements in the relationship among Portland neighborhoods. Our children will live with the results of today’s decisions, and it’s our responsibility to make the best choice.

Instead of settling for an unsafe bridge that limits options, we should leave our kids a safer, better facility that reconnects our neighborhoods and our city. The bridges are a symbol of Portland. Let us reconnect.

Evan Manvel is the Executive Director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. Erik Palmer is the Land Use Chair of Friends of Cathedral Park.

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