By Don MacGillivray
In approximately four years, the Burnside Bridge will be demolished and replaced with a modern new bridge, perhaps Portland’s greatest concession to the seismic future of Oregon.
The project will be similar to the rebuilding of the Sellwood Bridge, but the Burnside Bridge is a critical commercial lifeline for the central city and the region.
The 94-year-old Burnside Bridge is an aging structure requiring increasingly frequent repair and maintenance. The original Bridge opened in 1894 and it was replaced in 1926 at a cost of $4.5 million.
The design included Italian Renaissance towers and decorative metal railings and it became a registered as a Historic Landmark in 2012. Streetcars crossed the Burnside Bridge until 1950 when electric trolleybuses took over the route until 1958.
In the 1990s, the Bridge was established as a Regional Emergency Transportation Route and it is the one non-freeway bridge designated to provide emergency response, evacuation and recovery after a major disaster. It carries approximately 40,000 vehicles a day as well as over 2,000 bikes and pedestrians.
It is an accepted fact that a powerful earthquake will strike Oregon in the future. The state has suffered over 40 major earthquakes in the last 10,000 years (the last of which was 317 years ago).
In such an event, the aging Burnside Bridge would collapse or become unusable along with most of the older Willamette River bridges.
This would have a catastrophic impact on local transportation and the regional economy on both sides of the river. Thousands of Oregonians could die and the economic loss could exceed $30 billion.
A task force of diverse civic leaders has chosen the Long Span bridge alternative for the new replacement bridge after 18 months of deliberation. Recently, Multnomah County Commissioners have approved this option.
This type of bridge has the fewest support columns and avoids other more costly construction types because in the seismic zones of central Portland, the underlying ground is unstable.
The recommendation includes a vertical support structure above the bridge, which could be raised like the current bridge or a vertical lift span like the Hawthorne Bridge. This will make the final bridge dramatically different in appearance from what Portland has grown accustomed to for almost a century.
The new bridge will stay in its current location and the automotive roadway will increase from the current 51 feet to 55 feet in five lanes. The remaining 25 percent of the bridge width will be for bicyclists, pedestrians and other users.
There will be eight foot- wide pedestrian sidewalks and eight foot-wide protected bike lanes, two and a half feet wider than the existing ones.
Cost estimates for the proposed Burnside Bridge replacement is between $825 and $950 million. The Long Span option has been chosen because it will make it less expensive and structurally the strongest design.
Multnomah County will issue $270 million in bonds to fund one third of the project. These bonds will be repaid by an increase in the biennial vehicle registration fee from $38 to $114.
A setback for the bridge funding was the defeat of the Metro Transportation levy decided on November 3, which proposed $150 million for the bridge replacement project.
The remainder of the project is expected to be paid for through state and federal resources, but the final funding will be determined in late 2021.
The Burnside Bridge will close when construction begins in 2024 and it won’t be open again until it is finished in mid 2028. An option to construct a bridge bypass was considered, but it would have added two additional years to the construction time and cost an additional $90 million.
The project is undergoing environmental review and Multnomah County plans to release the draft Environmental Impact Statement in January 2021. The final design will be completed in the fall of 2022.
There was extensive public outreach this summer. More than 25,000 people visited the online open house and nearly 7,000 responded to an online survey. The Long Span option received support from 87 percent of people taking the survey.
The experience of walking, cycling and driving over the new Burnside Bridge will change greatly from today. The views of the “Portland Oregon” sign in Old Town-Chinatown are of concern to those involved in the final design decisions along with the entire skyline.
There will be additional space under the bridge on either side of the river that will allow the retention of community uses like the Portland Saturday Market on the west side and the Burnside Skatepark under the ramps on the east side.
The resulting new Burnside Bridge will surely be worth the wait.