TriMet is rightly proud of the Tilikum Crossing, the nation's first car-free transit and pedestrian bridge.
Open to light rail, buses, streetcar, pedestrians and bicyclists, the $134 million bridge is the standout feature of the Orange Line, itself a $1.49 billion light-rail corridor to Milwaukie and the agency's first new rail line in six years.
Consistently hailed for being on time and under budget, the Tilikum Crossing is a showcase of TriMet's commitment to giving commuters alternatives to their cars.
But one mile southeast on the Orange Line, at Southeast 16th Avenue and Brooklyn Street, local residents are furious about another bridge for walking and cycling—one that has disappeared completely from TriMet's plans.
This bridge was supposed to replace the Gideon pedestrian bridge, a concrete span that once crossed over the Union Pacific freight tracks nearby. The Gideon bridge was demolished in late 2013, part of a slew of buyouts and easement agreements paving the way for the construction of the Orange Line.
In fact, nothing has replaced it.
People who had used the bridge to cross over the milelong freight trains rolling into Union Pacific's nearby Brooklyn train yard are now climbing between train cars as they sit stopped, blocking intersections near the new MAX station at Southeast 12th Avenue and Clinton Street for up to 40 minutes at a time.
Chris Eykamp, who lives nearby, says that TriMet's new MAX station and the missing bridge are a bad combination.
"They've given people a reason to be at this intersection, and they tore down our bridge," he says.
"It's a huge, dangerous situation," says Susan Pearce, chairwoman of the Hosford-Abernethy Neighborhood District Association. "That's not acceptable to us."
Pearce says it doesn't make sense that the bridge hasn't been replaced yet—especially with the Orange Line coming in under budget by $10 million to $40 million, by TriMet's estimates.
"The freight train cuts off our whole neighborhood" from the MAX station, Pearce says. "People are going to be running across [the rail yard] to avoid missing their light-rail trains."
Though a replacement bridge was part of the original plans, TriMet spokeswoman Mary Fetsch says that a 10 percent reduction in anticipated federal funding for the project meant that some elements had to be cut from the final design, including replacing the Gideon bridge.
"We can only fund the scope agreed to as part of the…contract," Fetsch told WW in an email. "The replacement bridge is not included in the project scope."
The funding reduction resulted in the removal of a number of projects like the replacement bridge, with some making it back into the Orange Line's final plans.
A 2010 TriMet spreadsheet shows elimination of a bridge to replace the Gideon crossing saved $1.65 million.
When the Gideon replacement was removed, TriMet planners focused plans on two nearby crossings as alternatives: the surface-level crossing at 12th and Clinton, and another along Southeast Powell Boulevard that runs beneath the tracks—a half-mile walk from the former bridge at Southeast 13th Avenue and Gideon Street.
But TriMet is aware that pedestrians are crossing the Union Pacific tracks even while trains are stopped there.
Security video released to TriMet this summer shows a woman climbing between cars of a stopped train onto another set of Union Pacific tracks. She makes it through the intersection, but time stamps on the footage show a second freight train heading the opposite direction minutes after her crossing.
"Human beings tend to be like water," Claudia Howells, coordinator of Oregon Operation Lifesaver, a national rail-safety advocacy group, tells WW. "They will find the path of least resistance."
Howells, a retired rail-safety professional of 30 years, says most people who make crossings like this don't think they'll end up getting hurt or killed.
"I figure there's a certain mythology," she says, "that a lot of people who are hit by trains are transients or committing suicide. That's actually not true. People have to treat that kind of a location just like you would a freeway. You have to cross when and where it's safe."
TriMet is installing swing gates and other safety features on either side of the TriMet tracks at 8th, 11th and 12th avenues, primarily to slow pedestrians and bicyclists before they cross.
According to BikePortland.org, TriMet's original plan to install eight swing gates has been met with heated outcry from neighbors who question whether people on bicycles or with disabilities could easily use them.
TriMet cut six of the proposed gates, leaving two to be installed for a price that has not been determined.
The agency is looking to install these features by the end of October, but they would not be installed on Union Pacific tracks, which run parallel to the Orange Line.
Union Pacific's Brooklyn yard is an intermodal facility, where cargo containers are swapped between trucks and trains, often on their way to and from ships.
Francisco Castillo, a spokesman for the railroad, says trains stop across the nearby intersections for a number of reasons, including regular operations and mechanical problems.
"We're greatly concerned about safe behaviors at rail crossings," said TriMet's Fetsch, adding that the agency is working with local governments and the railroad to find ways to reduce the amount of time trains spend blocking intersections.
But neighbors remain convinced that without a bridge, TriMet is asking for blood on the tracks.
"We see this as a very urgent issue at the moment," Pearce says, "but we can't imagine why it wouldn't be as urgent to others as it is to us."
This story appeared in the Oct. 7, 2015 print edition under the headline "Walk the Orange Line."