Next week, the Oregon Department of Transportation is expected to bring to a close one of the more interesting chapters in recent Portland City Hall history, by tentatively approving about $3 million in lottery funding for a new bicycle and pedestrian bridge over Interstate 405.
The idea of connecting the Pearl to Northwest Portland with a bridge closed to cars traces its origins to a 2002 Portland Bureau of Transportation plan that also envisioned turning West Burnside and Couch streets into a pair of one-way streets.
The so-called Burnside-Couch couplet went nowhere. For years it looked like the bridge plan would, too. That plan called for a dedicated crossing for only bicyclists and pedestrians to give people options other than the busy bridges at Northwest Everett and Glisan streets.
In 2008, then-Commissioner Sam Adams championed the idea of a Flanders Street crossing—with a characteristically big idea that seemed to anger as many people as it excited.
He wanted to repurpose the Sauvie Island Bridge at U.S. 30 (which was about to be decommissioned) as the new pedestrian/bike bridge—a feat that engineers deemed possible at a cost of $5.5 million.
"Of all the harebrained ideas to come out of City Hall lately, the Sauvie Island Bridge caper takes the cake," Glenn Gillespie of Southwest Portland told The Oregonian. "Three big spenders on the Portland City Council have foolishly agreed to squander more than four or five million taxpayer dollars to 'recycle' the old bridge and move it to a new location as a pedestrian/bicycle crossing. It would make a lot more sense to earmark that money as a down payment on a new Sellwood Bridge, before that venerable and worn-out structure falls into the Willamette River."
Meawhile, supporters of the bridge wrote in an op-ed that it would be foolish to back away: "I-405 needs a pedestrian and bike bridge. The city of Portland has a tremendous opportunity in its hands, which looks very much like the Sauvie Island Bridge, and it would be a tragic loss if we failed to take advantage of it. The construction of I-405 tore apart the fabric of our community. This project would begin to stitch it back together."
Then-Mayor Tom Potter hated the idea, saying the bureau didn't have that kind of money and, if it did, it should go to repairing streets and building sidewalks. Potter was preparing to leave office, but Adams was running to replace him as mayor.
Adams' opponent, Sho Dozono, highlighted the bridge project as an example of Adams' zeal for splashy, legacy-cementing projects over more mundane, fiscally responsible endeavors.
But the real obstacles to the project went by the names of Walt and Jean—also known as the north and south cabins of the Portland Aerial Tram.
Completed in 2006, the tram project was supposed to cost $15 million, but ended up costing closer to $55 million. That bill was still stinging when Commissioner Dan Saltzman—the crucial swing vote— said no to Adams' project, which would have required using a specific contractor due to certain limitations. That also gave Saltzman pause.
"The last thing I want to do is be in a position where the contractor feels like they have us over a barrel," he was quoted as saying in The Oregonian.
When Adams pulled the plug, in May 2008, he said he couldn't "responsibly proceed" given concerns around cost.
Eight years later, PBOT is proposing to build a new 24-feet-wide span for $6 million, with $3 million in lottery funding and $3 million in city-funded system development charges. An Oregon Department of Transportation committee will weigh in on the city's request on July 21, which a final decision expected in August.
The NW Examiner says the project could be finished by 2019.