Thousands came out Saturday to celebrate the opening of the seismically-safe and pedestrian-friendly new Sellwood Bridge.
The air filled with the scent of charbroiled “bridge burgers” and roasting peanuts, as vendors parked food carts along the virgin expanse; behind them a giant crane loomed. Long lines formed to buy Voodoo Donuts and Fifty Licks ice cream.
Families strolled, pushed bikes, corralled dogs and children.
Multnomah County's Animal Services sold pet-centric swag. Elections staff displayed voter materials from the 1923 session seeking support for the first Sellwood Bridge. At one booth, children assembled their own toothpick-and-gumdrop bridges.
A crowd surrounded a stage, where Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury and Multnomah County Commissioners Jules Bailey, Loretta Smith, Judy Shiprack and Diane McKeel gathered with United States Senator Jeff Merkley, City of Portland Commissioner Steve Novick and others.
Chair Kafoury stepped to the podium.
“When cracks were found in the old bridge in 2003, Multnomah County faced a critical challenge: how to take on a major regional project with no money, no plan and no partners” she said. “Working together, we found that money. We developed that plan. And because of the people on this stage, their colleagues before them, and you in the community, we found those partners.”
The project, 90 percent complete, is expected to cost nearly $320 million. The county paid $173 million, the City of Portland covered another $75 million, the federal government paid $37 million, and the state paid $35 million.
The new bridge will include 12-foot-wide sidewalks in both directions and designated lanes for bikes. Pedestrians and cyclists crossing the old bridge had to share a single 4-foot-wide sidewalk.
“I’m personally the most excited about the wide sidewalks and bike lanes,” Kafoury said. “I know many of you have been brave enough to bike across this bridge, but I look forward to the day when those of us who are a little less brave, will have that opportunity.”
As Kafoury spoke a chocolate lab named after Coco Chanel wiggled in the crowd, licking any face within reach. Nearby a boy still dressed in his pajamas and wearing a Thomas the Tank Engine helmet, gripped a Sellwood balloon.
As the sun passed through the clouds, Jeff Lowery sat on the curb with his daughter Paige. They drove plastic spoons into bowls of chocolate ice cream topped with cookies, whipped cream and blue gummy sharks.
Lowery and his wife Eilidh, both Methodist pastors, moved to Sellwood three years ago. They live on Tacoma and said they’ve never known a time when traffic didn’t back up past their driveway. They don’t even try to drive Paige to school. She’s a 5th grader at Llewellyn Elementary.
They considered how the new bridge might make life a little easier.
“It will make it easier to get to school,” Paige said.
“It will be so much safer,” her father Jeff said. “Now if two bikes try to pass, one has to stop, they can barely get by.”
The pair are part of a father-daughter musical group called the Functional Monkeys, and they wrote a song about Portland’s bridges. Paige says she can’t remember the lyrics so Jeff starts.
“From Sellwood to St. John,” he begins, and Paige chimes in. “Let’s name them all tonight.”
Behind them, band members from LoveBomb Go-Go walked past, dressed in silver costumes. They took their place for the parade.
A man in a giant squirrel costume climbed into a 1914 Model T. Behind him drivers started a 1937 Ford Club Coupe, a 1939 Buick Roadmaster and a 1953 Chevy Apache.
The Transcendental Brass Band led the way, and as the procession moved across the bridge, the Portland Fire & Rescue fireboat David Campbell launched a stories-tall water cannon salute.
Jill Wolf, the project administrator for Sellwood Bridge, ducked into her makeshift office in the grey trailer at the bridgehead. She cracked a wide smile, a little fatigued.
“People have been very patient,” she said. Her team did their best to keep neighbors happy, but construction is dusty, loud and congesting. So it’s no wonder some people expressed their frustration. It made today that much more important.
“It feels fantastic,” she said, of the celebration. “Today is a major milestone. But as soon as this is done, the construction team will be back out there.”
The bridge will open this week, but there’s still some work to do on the approaches and landscaping before the project is completed this fall. And the old bridge must be carefully torn down. But she doesn’t have to wait to enjoy the hard work she’s put in.
“I use this bridge quite a bit,” she said. “And now when I cross, I can say that I had a tiny part in making it.”