A re-evaluation of the whole Sellwood Bridge project, in light of the recent funding defeat in Clackamas County
This defeat this past week by Clackamas County voters of the proposed $5 license fee to help pay for the Sellwood Bridge replacement project has Multnomah County scrambling to decide what to do next. While decisions have not been made, I have a sneaking suspicion that what will happen is certain design elements will be removed, and the bridge will be built without Clackamas County’s contribution. (And despite calls from some quarters for the bridge to be tolled for non-Multnomah County motorists, I suspect that won’t happen). There are well-known reasons that this is likely to occur–too many people in positions of power have too much invested in the current approach.
But given that I’m a blogger, not an elected official, and am thus unconstrained by the reality of public project inertia, I’m going to view the enterprise de novo: If we assume that the Sellwood Bridge wasn’t there (or was no longer open to motor vehicles), and we had $200 million or so to spend on a new Willamette River crossing–what would we do?
Purpose and need
It’s a dirty secret of public project management that by controlling the “purpose and need statement”, a document which describes the overall scope of the project, one can often dictate the final outcome–any idea which lies outside the “purpose and need” statement is considered out of scope, and discarded. The P&N statement for the CRC, for example, effectively rules out many of the sensible design options proposed other than the big hairy multimodal bridge and freeway rebuild that has been selected.
The Sellwood Bridge project’s purpose and need statement says the following:
The purpose of the project, as approved by the project’s Policy Advisory Group, is to “rehabilitate or replace the Sellwood Bridge within its existing east-west corridor to provide a structurally safe bridge and connections that accommodate multi-modal mobility needs.”
The following four major issues define the need for the Sellwood Bridge project:
- Inadequate structural integrity to safely accommodate various vehicle types (including transit vehicles, trucks, and emergency vehicles) and to withstand moderate seismic events
- Substandard and unsafe roadway design
- Substandard pedestrian and bicycle facilities across the river
- Existing and future travel demands between origins and destinations served by the Sellwood Bridge exceed available capacity
This statement was the result of careful negotiations among stakeholders, so it likely contains numerous political compromises. However, it’s worth unpacking. Some of the stated clauses are obvious items that probably aren’t in dispute (safety, modern design, and sufficient capacity); but two important design criteria are effectively constrained by the purpose and need statement: the what (a multimodal bridge), and the where (“within its existing east-west corridor”, which has been interpreted to mean “must connect to SE Tacoma Street”). In addition, the fact that this project is being run by Multnomah County implicitly constrains the “who”–Multnomah County is effectively chartered to design, build, operate, and maintain the bridge–and as we saw this past week, that has significant implications.
Assuming that these three parameters are variable in our hypothetical reboot, it’s good then to turn to the more important underyling question:
Why are we considering building a bridge, and does the reason justify the cost(s) involved? Beyond the obvious why-does-the-chicken-cross-the-road answer, we need to understand what the bridge is for–which means, first and foremost, understanding who the bridge is for.
Is it primarily for residents of Portland neighborhoods near the bridgehead–Sellwood, Westmoreland, Sellwood, Burlingame, and Dunthorpe? Is it for Clackamas County commuters trying to avoid congestion on OR99E? Should be it be a major east-west thoroughfare capable of rivaling the downtown bridges and the Abernathy (I-205) bridge for capacity and throughput? And what modes should it serve, and to what extent? High-speed auto traffic? Local traffic only (including mixed-traffic busses)? Rapid transit? Bikes and pedestrians?
These questions need to be answered before pondering the next level of questions–and the subsequent design and management choices ought to support the stated purpose of the project. My main objection to the current project is that this goal is not met: The project is declared to be of regional importance and assumes significant amounts of regional traffic; this state of affairs is used to justify the unusual funding technique of taxing residents of a neighboring county. Yet the project is being run by Multnomah County, not by Metro or ODOT or any other agency with a broader scope, and the current design–a two-lane bridge which extends Tacoma Street–is incompatible with these regional aspirations. Of course, this is pretty much a description of the existing bridge (other than the fact that its paid for), but decisions made a century ago need not constrain decisions which will be affecting the region a century hence.
At any rate, once the project’s purpose is given due consideration, then its on to the next three questions:
Who runs the project, and who pays for it
As noted, Multnomah County owns and operates the current bridge, and is running the replacement project. The county owns and operates five other Willamette River crossings–the Sauvie Island, Broadway, Burnside, Morrison, and Hawthorne bridges, and has ample expertise in bridge construction and maintenance.
The other bridge operators in the Portland metro area are ODOT (who own and operate the Boone, OC/West Linn, Abernathy, Ross Island, Marquam, Fremont, and St. Johns) and the UP (Steel Bridge, LO rail bridge) and BNSF (N. Portland rail bridge, Wilsonville rail bridge) railroads.
Both county and state ownership pose issues for a multimodal connector of regional importance. Multnomah County has difficulty with self-funding of projects of this sort–as witnessed by its attempt to pass the hat to its southern neighbors; and may not adequately represent the interests of non-county users. ODOT has its own institutional problems–the agency is fundamentally a highway-building agency; and if a highway is not the intended solution, ODOT’s involvement may be counterproductive. There are many complaints about ODOT’s insistence on an expensive interchange on the current project, and about its involvement with the CRC.
Two other possibilities that have been suggested are Metro and TriMet. Metro, as the regional MPO, has a scope of jurisdiction appropriate for this sort of project, and has a more multimodal culture than does ODOT. On the other hand, ownership and operation of capital projects is something which the agency presently does not do. TriMet does have this sort of expertise in house, and will own and operate the new Caruthers crossing once it is built. TriMet has successfully completed other major civil engineering projects such as the Robertson Tunnel, and numerous smaller viaducts and bridges along the MAX line. However, operation of a bridge which isn’t primarily used for transit operations may be outside of its purview.
Where does it go?
The location of the bridge is another important consideration. The current project was pretty much constrained from the get-go to be a replacement for the existing bridge. In some ways, that makes sense–established traffic patterns will be maintained, Sellwood residents won’t be angered by losing “their” bridge, and NIMBY objections will be minimized. But the location of the present bridge is a major liability for regional mobility, due to the character of SE Tacoma Street–a two-through-lane neighborhood street with low speeds and numerous pedestrian traffic; an inappropriate corridor for high-volume regional traffic or rapid transit.
Unfortunately, the existing geography and land use of the river basin limits the opportunities for crossing. Wildlife refuges on Ross Island and at Oaks Bottom make a crossing to the north problematic. Immediately south of the Sellwood neighborhood one finds a golf course on the eastern shore. South of that, downtown Milwaukie is on the riverfront, but opposite Elk Rock/Dunthorpe and some of the most expensive and exclusive real estate in the metro area. A crossing between Lake Oswego and Oak Grove would be possible, but would be too far south to handle OR224 traffic.
Any crossing would be further hampered by the fact that the Tualatin Mountains hug the west bank of the river, limiting connectivity further west. (South of Lake Oswego/Oak Grove, the Oatfield Ridge limits east/west connectivity on BOTH sides). South of Taylors Ferry Road, the next major east-west thoroughfare which crosses OR43 is Country Club Road/A Avenue in Lake Oswego. And no matter where a bridge is built, there is the issue of OR43 passing through the Macadam neighborhood, a traffic bottleneck.
What should it look like
Finally, there is the question of what the bridge ought to look like. This is probably the easiest question to answer–it will probably look like the proposed current design, with 2 general purpose lanes, the ability so support mixed-traffic rail, and ample pedestrian/bike facilities. A highway-only bridge is politically out of the question. A “green bridge” might arise out of a future transit project, possibly in the LO/Milwaukie area, but a standalone bridge without support for auto traffic is probably a non-starter.
Given all of that–if the existing project constraints were mostly removed, and the region had $200 million to build a southern crossing wherever it liked–where would you put it, how would you fund it, who would run it, and what would it look like? To make this interesting, feel free to imagine other connecting infrastructure projects in the future, if you like.
And if you think that the $200 million ought to be spent elsewhere entirely, or pocketed–with no more vehicular crossing of the Willamette between Oregon City and downtown after the existing bridge reaches the end of its useful life, feel free to say that as well.