Commissioners approve cost-saving measures for an Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge

March 21, 2022

On Thursday, March 17 the Board of County Commissioners unanimously approved a plan to significantly reduce the cost of the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge Project

Without the cost reductions, the project is estimated to cost more than $1 billion. The cost-saving measures approved by commissioners will reduce the project’s costs by as much as $215 million. 

“I think the work that you’ve done to get to this place, with going through the numerous committees and groups has made this project all the more better and stronger,” Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “And have a lot more community buy-in.”

Rendering of long span Burnside Bridge with cable supported tower on east approach.

As part of the new cost savings, commissioners approved a bascule movable span, a westside girder approach and reduced the width of the bridge. The current Burnside Bridge is a bascule bridge, which rotates open to provide unlimited clearance for river traffic. It also preserves the existing view corridor. 

County Public Information Officer Mike Pullen said there was broad public support for the bascule and girder but mixed support for narrowing the width. 

“Basically a theme that we heard from the public is if money was no object, we prefer the wider bridge you originally proposed: but we don’t want to prevent the project from getting built,” Pullen said.  

Andrew Holtz, the Multnomah County Bicycle and Pedestrian Citizen Advisory Committee chair shared his concerns with narrowing the bridge width during public comment. 

“The budget plan casts the choices between a skinny bridge and no bridge at all, that is a political calculation,” Holtz said. “Getting adequate funding is harder than settling for inadequate funding, but it’s worth the fight, climate action is not optional.” 

“This is not the ideal thing that we would be wanting to put forward, but it is with the reality of where costs are right now, the impacts of inflation and what we know we need to prioritize for this project in getting a bridge that will help Portland and Multnomah County stay as whole as possible, and recover as quickly as possible, after a Cascadia event,” Commissioner, Jessica Vega Pederson said. 

Members of the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project team with County Commissioners at the 3-17-2022 meeting.
The Burnside Bridge is nearly 100 years old and is a major connection between the east and west sides of the Portland-metro area. 

County engineers say the current bridge would not withstand a magnitude 8+ Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that could hit the Pacific Northwest region at any time. 

The Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge Project will replace the existing bridge with a new seismically-resilient crossing, so that it can be immediately used after a major earthquake. 

“It’s been 322 years since the last major Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and studies show there is a one in three chance of a major earthquake happening in the next 50 years in Oregon,” County Project Manager, Megan Neil said. “This is why the county has invested in the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge Project whose purpose is to really provide that one downtown bridge that’s going to be seismically resilient for our community to use.”

At the onset of this project, Multnomah County conducted a feasibility study of more than 100 options, including tunnels, ferries, double-deck bridges and other bridge options.

Four bridge alternatives from that study were recommended for additional evaluation in the Environmental Review Phase. This phase studies various environmental impacts the project could have on the surrounding area.  

The County asked the community to weigh in on the preferred alternative of the four options through a public engagement process. The Replacement Long Span was chosen as the most feasible option for having the lowest cost, its seismic resiliency and the fewest environmental impacts.  

The County then asked community members for thoughts on the type of long-span structure they would like to see built for the project. The options included girder, truss, tied arch and cable-supported structure. It also included bascule and lift choices for the bridge’s moveable span.  

In early 2021 County leaders raised concerns about the project’s overall costs due to various external factors, including pandemic-related inflation, and asked project leaders to find ways to reduce the cost of the project. The team found the three important cost refinements totaling roughly $200 million that the commissioners approved on Thursday. 

Project managers will now put together a Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement which will be released in late April. The document describes the impacts of the cost-saving measures. There will be a public comment period before the Federal Highway Administration reviews the environmental impact statement. 

In late 2022, the project will publish the final environmental statement and complete the planning phase. Design of the new bridge is expected to start in late 2022. Construction would begin in 2025 and last four to five years.