By Midge Pierce

Despite living in an earthquake zone, few Portland residents think about the danger of crossing the Willamette River on our aging bridges. Yet for 40,000 cars crossing the Burnside Bridge daily, it is a gamble. 

In the event of disaster, Burnside is a crucial span for first responders and deliveries of emergency supplies. It is also at risk of collapse during a major earthquake and warnings have been issued about it. 

Now, a year into reviewing bridge safety options, a City taskforce is facing the difficult decision of whether the bridge should be seismically retrofitted or completely rebuilt as part of the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge project under Multnomah County jurisdiction. 

The taskforce is charged with reviewing three options that include retrofitting the existing bridge, replacing the bridge with essentially the same footprint or building a longer span that could bypass liquification risks on the Eastside’s potentially slippery slope. 

An advantage of building a longer span is that it includes the extension of NE Couch St. to avoid a sharp westbound S-curve that now exists, according to press spokesman Michael Pullen. 

The three options were narrowed from some 100 discarded alternatives that included a floating option and ferry crossings. 

Built in 1926, the Burnside Bridge is one of the City’s longest and busiest thoroughfares with three bus lines, 2,000 bike-pedestrian crossings and 40,000 cars daily. It is a major east-west truck route. 

The projected cost of rebuilding, estimated at up to $860 million, may rise with updates this spring. The planning and design phase costs for the project come from local vehicle registrations fees. 

$150 million in construction funds would come from a regional transportation measure Metro is expected to put on the November 2020 ballot. The balance could come from state and federal governments. 

Eliminating a temporary bridge could be the biggest cost savings. County data indicated that diverting traffic to other bridges during Burnside construction would only add three and a half minutes to most commutes. 

At a February meeting, the taskforce prioritized criteria that ranged from quality of life to impacts on Saturday Market; to social and environmental justice issues such as loss of shelter beds. Not surprisingly, seismic resiliency was accorded most weight while aesthetic considerations came in comparatively low. 

“Some of us were a little surprised that the City task force ranked fiscal responsibility and business and economics as lower priority than some other topics,” said Pullen.

The taskforce is expected to present its bridge preference to County officials this summer. Recommendations will be subject to environmental and Federal Highway Administration reviews. The long planning process and construction may extend into the middle of the decade. 

Because an earthquake may be imminent, experts say there is no time to waste. The county says it is working as fast as it can. In the interim, officials urge residents to develop emergency communication and preparedness plans. 

More information at burnsidebridge.org.

Photo by Midge Pierce