Traffic change shows progress in replacing long 99-E viaduct

In less than a couple of years, it will be a smooth drive in and out of Portland to SE Portland. Learn all about it right here …

Perched on the edge of the bridge they’re demolishing, these massive machines tear apart the former northbound Grand Avenue Viaduct.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Those driving north on McLoughlin Boulevard under the Ross Island Bridge encountered a new route onto Grand Avenue in early July – swerving left onto part of the southbound viaduct, then routed back to Grand in a very tight right turn. Some may have found the change annoying.

But don’t grumble when you drive through the road construction area on Oregon Hwy. 99-E that links Portland’s core area with Inner Southeast Portland – the old viaducts were crumbling, and had to be replaced.

That was the comment from Department of Transportation spokesperson Christine Miles, as she watched giant jackhammers knock down the old northbound viaduct that spanned the wide gulch (once a Willamette River east-bank swamp) from SE Woodward Street north to SE Lincoln Street.

“Although it looked like a single structure,” Miles said, “the viaduct was actually two separate structures – the southbound viaduct was much older.”

A steam engine pulls a train toward Union Station, under the former Union Avenue Viaduct – built on what turned out to be unstable ground, in 1936. ODOT photo

Here’s a look at the former Union Avenue Viaduct from the intersection of 99-E and SE Division Street. ODOT photo

The one that carried southbound traffic on Highway 99-E, now called the Martin Luther King, Jr. Viaduct, was constructed in 1936. “It was built on the edge of a wetland filled with sawmill waste – up to 66 feet deep in places,” said Miles. “As a result, the structure had several columns and spans that had settled. The railings, joints, columns, and beams had deteriorated.”

The northbound viaduct, called the Grand Avenue couplet, wasn’t built until 1965 – but it, too, didn’t meet current highway safety standards for width or safety.

Be prepared to zig and zag through the construction area, as the old viaducts are removed, and the new ones built, just north of the Ross Island Bridge.

Project started in 2006
ODOT started making improvements to the roadway, utility, and drainage systems under the viaducts in 2006 and 2007. Then, the chosen construction company started building both temporary and permanent viaducts to keep the 54,000 vehicles that use them every day from having to be detoured.

“At one time, they talked about rerouting traffic around the worksite,” Miles notes. “But they realized this would cause major traffic jams; this is the main route in and out of the City to southeast Portland. We’re keeping two vehicle lanes open in each direction throughout most of the construction. Bicycle and pedestrian traffic has been rerouted onto side streets.”

All of the steel rebar reinforcement from the old viaducts is being saved and recycled.

Machines mash concrete structure
From SE 6th Avenue and Grant Street, we watch as two large excavators, each equipped with jackhammers instead of a scoop, pound away on the old northbound Grand Avenue Viaduct, reducing the concrete roadbed to gravel that falls below. The machines dismantle a few feet of the roadway, then creep backward, moving northward.

“We’re able to salvage much of the concrete; it will be used as fill material in other projects,” remarked Miles. “And, we’re collecting all of the steel rebar for recycling. There’s a lot of metal in that structure.”

As crews continue to clear away the rubble to begin building the new northbound viaduct, expect slow speed limits and traffic pattern changes, warned Miles.

ODOT spokesperson Christine Miles learns about the temporary (left, above) and the new permanent (right side) viaducts on Highway 99-E, north of the Ross Island Bridge, from Helen Asper – ODOT Inspector with Crew 1823.

Many improvements to emerge

The $64 million project includes:

  • Replacing the long MLK, Jr. Boulevard and Grand Avenue viaducts. The new viaducts will feature two travel lanes in each direction, bicycle lanes, and sidewalks.
  • Pedestrian ramp improvements at 6th Avenue, connecting Woodward Street with Powell Boulevard and the Ross Island Bridge. Pedestrian ramps on both sides of the viaduct at Division Place will connect with the streets below.
  • Access improvements at Woodward Street for northbound traffic entering and exiting Highway 99-E.
  • Architectural historic features on the new viaducts, including four prominent pylons, and historical-style illumination.

The lengthy project is scheduled to be completed in 2011. “Please drive carefully through this area while it’s under construction,” requested Miles.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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