In its efforts to prepare the region for a Cascadia earthquake, Multnomah County’s Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project team presented two bills to the Joint Committee on Transportation that aim to substantially fund one of the largest earthquake resilience projects in Oregon. 

“We are set to begin design relatively soon and we are here before you today because we do need funding to finish this project,” Multnomah County Government Relations State and Regional Affairs Coordinator, Taylor Steenblock said as she testified at a legislative hearing at the state Capitol Thursday March 23. “We are seeking every federal grant we could possibly be eligible for and we are hoping that we can receive some state funding in addition to other creative ways to fund the project.” 

HB 3323 would appropriate $300 million from the state’s General Fund to the Oregon Department of Administrative Services for distribution to the EQRB project. This would double the project’s current funding. The County has already committed to funding a third of the $895 million project, through its vehicle registration fee. 

HB 3301 would authorize Multnomah County to form a master plan and service district regarding bridges that span the Willamette River.  

“What this would do is allow us to create a district similar to a lighting district or a roads district and it would further allow us to charge a fee that we can use to generate a small amount of revenue and increase our bonding capacity for projects like this,” Steenblock said. 

Steenblock said there are amendments coming soon that may change the fee structure of this bill. But she said generally this would be an annual fee per household between $1 and $5 for those who live in Multnomah County.   

Rep. Dacia Grayber, D-District 28, is sponsoring bill 3301.

“We know that for every dollar spent pre-disaster, we save $6 post-disaster and even more important, countless potential lives,” Rep. Grayber said.

Right now, there will be no immediately usable bridges in downtown Portland after a major earthquake. Multnomah County is leading an effort to replace the current Burnside Bridge with one that can withstand a Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquake. 

Multnomah County’s Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project team presented two bills to the Joint Committee on Transportation on Thursday, March 23.
Project Manager Megan Neill spoke about why the Burnside Bridge is the best choice for this type of project.

“The Burnside corridor itself is probably the most resilient corridor of all of these routes, it has relatively few overpasses and structures that could collapse along the corridor rendering it unusable after a major earthquake,” Neill said. “And again it knits our region together all the way from Washington County on the west to Gresham on the east, so by replacing the Burnside Bridge we can really go a long way to making this entire corridor a dependable, reliable route for our community to use after a major earthquake.” 

Neill and Steenblock presented with Transportation Division Director and County Engineer Jon Henrichsen.

“After the initial emergency response, this bridge will be a main conduit to facilitate local and regional rebuilding and recovery as long term repair of streets, bridges, buildings and critical utilities takes place,” Henrichsen said. 

Henrichsen said the bridge will be built to meet the transit, freight, and multimodal needs of the metro region now and at least a 100 years into the future. 

After their presentation, Neill, Steenblock and Henrichsen fielded questions from the committee on overall costs and strategy to get the project funded. 

“If we had a massive transportation infrastructure bill which partnered with the State of Washington, and asked for a major infusion of federal capital, I assume you would be happy if we included you and the I-5 bridge, any other bridges that we need to work, the 2000 state bridges that need renovation, rail line improvements,” Rep. Kevin Mannix R-District 21 said. “Would this be an attractive option if we were able to put something together?” 

“I think we’re happy to be a part of any collaborative conversation that might happen on infrastructure and I would hope that the committee would see today that we’ve worked really hard to incorporate community feedback and I think the need for our bridge is great and we would love to be a part of that conversation,” Steenblock said. 

Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson gave passionate testimony in support of two bills that would substantially fund the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge Project.
Many community leaders and citizens gave passionate public testimony in support of the project. Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson spoke about the crucial need for a seismically resilient bridge. 

“When the Big One hits, thousands of our fellow Oregonians will die. In my community of Multnomah County, families who live on the east side of the Willamette but work downtown will be stranded and unable to reach their homes and children,” Chair Vega Pederson said. “Children in day-care or school will be unable to reach their parents and loved-ones. The electrical grid will fail. Thousands of buildings that are not up to modern seismic resilience standards will collapse.” 

Chair Vega Pederson touched on the immediate impacts and how a major earthquake will impact the region long term. 

“The economic damage to our region will also be catastrophic, with at least $32 billion in projected losses spanning over a significant period of days, weeks, months and years,” Chair Vega Pederson said.

Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal spoke about the new bridge's benefits beyond its seismic resilience. 

“While seismic resilience is our north star, we have also incorporated many other community requests such as a crash worthy barrier between lanes of traffic and the multi-use path,” Commissioner Jayapal said. “The bridge’s multi-use path will be at least as wide as the current path on the Tilikum bridge, which is the widest of any Willamette River Bridge currently in use, and possibly wider.The bridge will be designed to accommodate a streetcar, and the lane configuration will include a bus-only lane on the east-bound side of the bridge to encourage transit ridership.” 

Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal gave passionate testimony in support of two bills that aim to substantially fund one of the largest earthquake resilience projects in Oregon.
Commissioner Jayapal also touted the sustainability focus for the new bridge. 

“The new bridge will capture all stormwater from the bridge deck, treat it to satisfy the stringent City of Portland and Oregon state standards, and convey it into an upgraded stormwater treatment facility, improving the water quality of the Willamette River,” Commissioner Jayapal said.

The project is aiming for gold certification in the Greenroads Sustainability System during the design and construction phases of the bridge. 

Multnomah County Emergency Management Director Chris Voss also testified, sharing a grim picture of what our region will face in the wake of a major earthquake.

“We’re expected to see over 15,000 injuries and obviously a lot of buildings we expect to collapse. So the movement of those emergency responders both east and west is certainly critical for us,” Voss said. 

Voss said the west side presents some major challenges. 

“What you have on the west side is a very very high density of population, you have a very very high density of unreinforced masonry, 264 buildings I think the last time I saw and then you also have just to the north of that a CEI (Critical Energy Infrastructure) hub with 350 million gallons of hazardous materials and we know based on those reports you’re going to see somewhere between 94 and 195 million gallons of that probably released.”

Portland Fire and Rescue Cpt. Louisa Jones also testified, sharing an urgency to get the bridge built.

“Generators will be the only power source operating critical emergency resources including emergency radio and cell towers,” Cpt. Jones said. “With at least one bridge, fuel convoys arriving from the east will be able to move west to resupply these generators and all rescue and response vehicles in the region. The impact of having at least one bridge, cannot be overstated. It will save lives, improve rescue efforts, and set the entire state on a dramatically improved path to recovery.”

Among the many others testifying their support, were concerned community members, contractors, labor union representatives, the Portland Saturday Market director and historians. More than 20 people signed up for public testimony. The meeting ran out of time and those who were signed up for virtual testimony were asked to submit written statements.

You can view a recording of the hearing here.