Portland urgently needs to get rid of the 1926 Burnside Bridge, for fear that it will fall into the river during a big earthquake.
Multnomah County wants it replaced with a similar size bridge, with a lift span to let ships through. It must be able to survive an earthquake so emergency traffic can use it when most of the other Willamette bridges have collapsed.
The county already has agreed on a long-span bridge. It would have some sort of overhead supports, requiring fewer columns sunk into the potentially unstable earth. Now county officials are deciding what impact the supports will have on land around Saturday Market and the inner east side, including the famous Burnside Skatepark.
The public, a community task force and elected leaders looked at four alternatives — three new bridges and a remodel — and the one they chose was the cheapest.
Mike Pullen, a spokesperson for Multnomah County and an expert on bridges and highways, explained the need cost cutting: "The problem is not that we chose the wrong option. The problem is the option we chose, even if (it's) the lowest cost one, is quite expensive. That's just the nature of building a long-span bridge … it has to be very deep to get down to the bedrock."
The very early price tags ranged from $800 million to $965 million. The range is wide because they have not chosen the style of bridge yet. The County plans to pay for the project with funds from the county, state and federal governments, and possibly from other regional sources.Â
Multnomah County had $300 million in funds for the bridge, but when Metro's regional transportation funding measure failed in the November 2020 election, that was $150 million that no longer was coming for infrastructure.
As Pullen explains it, the county needs the time now to raise the money, by writing grants. In the meantime, looking for cost savings is only prudent.
"We're taking a pause to see if we can lower the cost of the project, before we commit to what structure type it's going to be. We actually need the extra time just to find the money
Some possible savings include:
• Making the bridge narrower
• Putting pillars in the Burnside Skatepark at the east end
• Reconfiguring the pillars at the west end
Lose a lane
One way to save 15% to 20% of the cost of the bridge is by making the bridge narrower, getting by with four traffic lanes instead of five. That would save $150 million, in three ways:
One, it saves concrete and steel needed for the deck. Two, the underground supports can be smaller (and cheaper) because they don't have to support so great a weight. Three, labor costs are less.
A narrower bridge could have a reversible lane that switches between the morning to afternoon rush hour. For example, on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a truck pushes the barrier twice a day to reset the lanes. Another way is to have plastic lane dividers that pop up out of the deck.
"There's just this exodus from downtown Portland between 4 and 6 p.m., where the morning commute is spread out for some reason. So we'll study how to allocate those lanes that summer, if we're only going to have four," Pullen said.
He says the 10- to 20-year forecast shows freeway traffic increasing but downtown traffic decreasing as the city makes it more expensive to park, people work from home or switch to other transport modes. The county is studying traffic data this summer and will decide about this in the fall of 2021.
Skaters gonna skate
The Burnside Skatepark was built illegally in the late 1980s and 1990s by volunteers. It is not built to code and is steeper than most skateparks and more extreme, which is why it is so loved by locals, tourists and players of Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1+2. The bridge team heard loud and clear from skate fans all over the world during the last public comment time, as the survey spread online. "The project has determined that the Skatepark is eligible to be on the National Register of Historic Places based on its historic qualities and significance, which gives it some protections.
Two pillars already plunge into the park, and ramps are built around them. Options include building support for the new bridge in the same place, in another part of the run, or on Southeast Second Avenue, which would cut into the parking. They could also chop the old pillars off and keep the ramps at their base.
"It's interesting how many transportation projects have to work around a world-famous, do-it-yourself skatepark," Pullen said.
The Burnside Bridge also is on the National Register of Historic Places, but that isn't enough to save to from being torn down and replaced. The Burnside Skatepark, however, is vulnerable to political pressure.
The soil on the west side of the river is not as prone to liquefying in an earthquake, so it is possible — and cheaper — to use more, smaller columns to hold that end up, than it would be to hold up the east bank approach.
"So we save money by having extra columns on the west side," Pullen said.
On the east side, in an earthquake the liquefied soils would flow around the big columns toward the river but those columns, rooted into the bedrock, would hold firm and the bridge would stay intact, in theory.
One other cost saving possibilities include: The city plans to put the Portland Streetcar over the Burnside Bridge in the future. The county was going to spend $5 million to $10 million to buy a sliver of private land outside the YARD apartments, so that the train could turn and get up on the bridge.
"So we're thinking well, since the city hasn't said when they're going to install the streetcar, maybe we just let the city cover that expense when they decide to do that. It's really a city program not a county program."
And aesthetics could take a cut, too — things like architectural lighting. "We're going to be frugal about design costs, and make it look pretty," Pullen said. "It might be the kind of finishes that are on the railings, the architectural treatments."
Pullen recalled the construction of the new Sellwood Bridge. "I watched the architects' budget get cut way back. In the end, we still were able to have a lighting scheme where all the arches on the bridge are lit at night. But we economized on some of the treatments, (stuff) not essential to the bridge standing up and surviving the earthquake."
The true public input period will be in February 2022, where the county will publish its recommendations and is required to have months of public input.
Build back Burnside
Pullen adds that President Joe Biden's proposed infrastructure bills are a big unknown. Should they come to pass, the bridge team hopes to get some of that money.
"We're keeping our Oregon congressional delegation informed of what we're doing, hoping that they're going to be supportive when we're competing with all the other regions of the country. But that's just an idea, that's not a source of money we can go after," he said.
"If you're planning and designing the thing, sometimes you just have to wait until you have the money to actually build it," he added. "But time is money. So if you wait too long, prices just go up due to inflation. A famous example is the Columbia River Crossing…. We actually don't have political or community opposition, which were factors in the Columbia River Crossing. It was a pretty controversial project. We don't really have controversy. We have an expensive project. And we don't have our funding plan solidified yet. It's not unusual to not have all your money at this stage."
Multnomah County says it will need to close the Burnside Skatepark at times during construction for public safety.
According to County spokesperson Mike Pullen, "The preliminary concept for the preferred alternative recommended for the new bridge (the Long Span Replacement) would have largely avoided constructing support columns near the park. This summer we are studying concepts that could reduce the project cost by $15 million to $20 million by building support columns very close to or even inside the skatepark. The cost savings comes from avoiding costly underground construction west of the park. By this fall, we expect to decide if we will choose one of these new options or stick with our original concept.
In short, we don't have a dollar amount for what it will cost for the skatepark to remain. Legally, we're required to minimize our impacts on the park. By year's end, we expect to decide how to best protect the park when we build the new bridge."
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