December 16, 2011

On Friday, Dec. 16, more than 150 citizens joined Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, Commissioners Deborah Kafoury, Judy Shiprack and Diane McKeel, Portland Mayor Sam Adams and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader at the celebration. The groundbreaking took place at Sellwood Riverfront Park in Southeast Portland.

Speakers at the event included state Rep. Carolyn Tomei, state Sen. Diane Rosenbaum and Jason Tell, manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“Today we celebrate the start of something that our community has waited nearly 50 years for,” Commissioner Kafoury said. “The new steel deck and arch bridge will be a graceful addition to Portland’s world-class collection of bridges. We’re going to have a bridge that represents our community values and our community ethic.”

Chair Cogen emphasized the partnerships it took to make the bridge project a reality.

“We live in a time of stalemate and often stagnation where critics say it’s impossible to get things done,” Chair Cogen said. “But this project is a clear example when we work together in partnership together as a county, as a city, as a state and as a federal government, we can make things happen. We can make big, important things happen.”

One special guest at the groundbreaking was U.S. Department of Transportation Undersecretary Polly Trottenberg, who traveled from Washington, D.C. to present Multnomah County with a $17.7 million check and officially announce that the county has received a federal TIGER grant for the Sellwood Bridge project. Multnomah County received the seventh largest grant out of 46 awarded by the federal agency, and competition was fierce, Trottenberg said.

“The application for the Sellwood Bridge knocked it out of the park,” she said, praising the project’s strong state, regional, and local support and enthusiastic public participation.

“The project also fits very well with the transportation priorities of this administration: fixing crucial existing infrastructure in an innovative and cost-effective way,” Trottenberg said.

The federal grant will help pay for the $268 million project. The federal money eliminates most of the $23 million shortfall that county officials faced.

The Sellwood Bridge replacement has been a long time coming.

First built in 1925, the two-lane span replaced the Spokane Street Ferry, which shuttled passengers across the Willamette River between Sellwood and West Portland. The bridge was built 86 years ago using money from a $4.5 million local bond measure.

The original bridge’s design was scaled back in 1925 after public outcry about overspending on the Burnside Bridge. As a result, the bridge to this day is narrow with two lanes, no shoulder, no median and one four-foot sidewalk on the north side shared by pedestrians and bicyclists.

Built without trolley tracks, the bridge was not designed for the additional weight of streetcars. That means it is not as substantial as Portland’s other river crossings.

Over the years, the bridge continued to deteriorate. A landslide in the 1960s damaged the bridge and closed it for several months.

In 2004, cracks were discovered in both the east and west concrete approaches. The cracks were restrained with steel clamps, which lowered the weight restrictions for vehicles traveling across the bridge from 32 tons to 10 tons. An average of 1,400 trucks and buses must find a different river crossing route daily. In 2008, the county injected glue in cracked sections of concrete to seal them against further deterioration caused by air and water.

The bridge scores a two out of 100 on a federal bridge sufficiency rating, which rates spans based on structural problems and how well they serve traffic. Multnomah County inspects the Sellwood Bridge every three months to monitor those cracks and the hillside slope to ensure the bridge is safe to use.

Construction of the largest bridge project Multnomah County has seen in decades will be a boon to the community. The project is expected to create the equivalent of 400 jobs per year during construction. According to the project’s diversity plan, 20 percent of the construction budget will go to businesses owned by women, minorities or emerging, small businesses.

The first step in replacing the bridge is to build a detour bridge, which will shorten the construction schedule by as much as a year and save up to $10 million. Construction of the detour structure begins this month. Late next summer, workers will move the old bridge out of the way onto new piers 40 feet to the north. The detour bridge will allow the new steel deck arch bridge to be constructed in one phase, saving time and money. It will also be safer for the public and workers because there will be greater separation between bridge users and construction.

The entire project is expected to be finished in late 2015. The project is funded by Multnomah County, the city of Portland, the Oregon Department of Transportation, and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The replacement project received support from key local, state and federal leaders, including: U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, U.S. Congressmen Kurt Schrader and Earl Blumenauer. Blumenauer’s office was instrumental in contacting the Coast Guard, which issued its permit Friday for in-water construction to begin. Other local leaders attending were Portland Mayor Sam Adams, Oregon Rep. Carolyn Tomei and State Sen. Diane Rosenbaum. 

The Sellwood Bridge replacement is “a project that’s going to help people in this community get to work, and a project that’s going to put people in this community back to work,” Chair Cogen said. “And that’s something to cheer.”

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