Sellwood Bridge planning speeds to climax

Here’s an update on what they’re doing about the aging Sellwood Bridge …

At the January 5 meeting, Multnomah County Commission Chair Ted Wheeler tells the CTF members, “You’ve spent 2½ years on this project. I convey my, and the Board of County Commissioners’ gratitude for the initiative you’ve undertaken. This is a very complicated project; one of the largest transportation projects currently being contemplated on the West Coast.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
After over two years of sometimes contentious meetings, studies, public testimony hearings, and several surveys, the twenty-member all-volunteer Sellwood Bridge Community Task Force (CTF) decided on a recommendation of a locally-preferred alternative for a new bridge’s alignment to present to project’s Policy Advisory Group in its meeting on Friday, February 6th.

The Policy Advisory Group, a blue-ribbon committee of regional public figures, is the panel officially charged with making the actual recommendation; the CTF decision is simply advice, and is not binding.

Many thought the CTF would make a decision after their three-hour meeting in the OMSI auditorium in January 5th, a session that drew only about 55 citizen observers. Because the task force simply narrowed the choice to two options, Alignment D and E at that time, it reconvened on January 19th at the same location to try to make a final selection.

Photos being held aloft are of individuals who wanted to “be heard” – or at least, seen.

Public comments on two alternatives
Both meetings began with time offered for people attending the meeting to share their concerns with the task force, and comment on the bridge project’s draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). In the earlier meeting, a handful of citizens testified; two weeks later, more than 20 people asked to be heard.

There was little comment regarding technical bridge building issues. Instead, citizens explained why they favored one or the other of the two alternatives still on the table: “Alignment D” – rebuilding the bridge where it now stands – and “Alignment E”, which would build a new bridge to the north of the current structure.

No one on either side championed a bridge providing three or four lanes of vehicle traffic; instead all were asking for a “Skinny D” or Skinny E” alternative.

David Noble, the Executive Director of the River View Cemetery, says he’s concerned about the geological stability at the bridge’s current west side alignment.

‘D’ said to negatively impact condo owners
Many of those who testified on behalf of Alternative E were residents of Sellwood Harbor Condominiums – located just south of the east end of the bridge. They decried the fact that Alignment D would slice up to four units off two of their buildings to make way for the construction. Many residents commented that they now “couldn’t sell their unit if they wanted to”, due to uncertainty about the bridge project.

Condo resident John Holms noted “We all own an undivided interest in our development; removing units hurts us all. [Former Multnomah County Commissioner] Maria Rojo de Steffey told us she was not in favor of the current alignment.” Barbara Sloop added that she’s lived at Sellwood Harbor for 18 years and doesn’t want it to move. “People are important. I feel helpless.”

David Noble, the Executive Director of the River View Cemetery, said he was concerned about maintaining access to their grounds. “I’m concerned that the DEIS points out the instability of the west side, geologically. I don’t understand building a bridge in the same, unstable place it is now. Put the west end [further to the north] on stable ground.” The County proposes to stabilize the west end of a rebuilt bridge on the same spot with the use of a cofferdam.

More than 200 neighbors crowded into the OMSI auditorium to express their opinions about how – and where – to rebuild the Sellwood Bridge.

Neighborhood organizations rally to support Alternative D
Those who commented against Alignment E raised concerns that a northern alignment would negatively impact Oaks Pioneer Church and Sellwood Riverfront Park, and would impact more residential units and business properties than Alignment E.

In a letter to the CTF committee dated January 18, the Board of the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE) unanimously endorsed Alignment D as the preferred option for the future Sellwood Bridge, citing protection of the Tacoma Main Street Plan. Further it stated, “… any replacement bridge [should] be a two-lane configuration.”

This letter also stated: “While the board sympathizes with the position of the owners of property potentially affected by option D, it should be noted that the need for a replacement for the bridge predates the construction of these properties and had been widely publicized, so that these impacts were a foreseeable event. ”

Eric Miller, with the Sellwood Playgroup Association, gives his public comment.

Absent citizens make their feelings known
At the January 19 CTF meeting, Eric Miller, with the Sellwood Playgroup Association, was the first to publicly testify.

“Many families who have small children who are unable to come to the task force meetings because of dinner and early bed times,” Miller began. “I’d like people to hold up their posters. These photos are of faces of people who could not make it here tonight.”

Around the sides and back of the room, photos of a hundred individuals – and one dog – went up. “They wanted to make their faces seen, their message heard. The message they are saying is ‘I support the current alignment, and, I do not support Alignment E’.” Individuals not holding photos held up yellow signs with the same message.

Many audience members testified silently by holding up signs supporting Alignment D.

After handing a document to CTF members, Miller continued, sympathizing with people who “live near the bridge” who he felt were suffering financially or from the stress of uncertainty. “And, there are also many, living in [the path of] the [proposed] northern alignment would also suffer. I think would be best for all of us not to delay; but to move at appropriate speed toward making necessary decisions.”

As applause and cheers broke out, CTF facilitator Elaine Cogan admonished the observers to be respectful of limited time allowed for the meeting.

Pat Hainley, the Treasurer of SMILE, the Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League neighborhood association, was up next, and echoed the sentiments expressed in their organization’s letter. “I’m a lifelong resident of Sellwood. Some of the people who serve on this [CTF] committee have expressed concern that the neighborhood hasn’t sufficiently expressed our desires to you,” he said as he looked at the sea of yellow signs still raised around the room.

Each for their own reasons, many more participants followed, expressing support for the “Skinny D” Alternative.

Although comments from proponents of both alignments were interspersed throughout the hour-long comment session, the overall tone of the comments was relatively cordial, except for an individual who testified, “People who want Alternative E are disingenuous. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” This remark was not kindly received by many people in the room.

As the public comment period ended, the crowd of as many as 200 people thinned out to about 70 and the committee began its deliberations. Committee members asked questions of staff experts and of one another.

Sellwood Bridge Community Task Force members vote by placing stickers on placards.

Voting by stickers
Cogan directed the attention of the group to four poster boards on easels and asked them to cast a “straw vote” for their preferences regarding the proposed bridge’s east and west side connections, cross section (width) and finally, alignment path.

After further discussion and a second vote:

  • Task force members unanimously chose a traffic-signal-controlled intersection for the bridge’s westside connection, instead of a “roundabout”.
  • At the eastside connection, the majority voted to recommend installing a bicycle/pedestrian traffic signal on S.E. Tacoma Street at S.E. 6th Ave. over a Grand Avenue extension, or else leaving it as it currently is.
  • The majority of members first voted for Alignment “D”; this choice gained picked up more votes in the second round, and became the CTF’s recommended alignment.

In the end, the CTF did not decide whether to recommend the Sellwood Bridge on Alignment D be 64′ or 75′ wide. Both widths would provide bike lanes and pedestrian walkways. The narrower structure would provide two vehicle traffic lanes, the wider version could potentially accommodate three lanes for cars and trucks.

CTF facilitator Elaine Cogan tallies up the first round of voting.

Again, the locally-preferred alternative recommended by the Community Task Force is advisory only, and is not binding on the blue-ribbon “Policy Advisory Group” which now must deliberate the alternatives and make a final recommendation — which must then be adopted by Multnomah County, the City of Portland and Metro, before the Federal Highway Administration can issue final approval.

The Policy Advisory Group will meet at the Multnomah County Building, 501 S.E. Hawthorne Boulevard, on Friday, Friday, February 6th, at 3 pm in the County Boardroom. The meeting is slated to last two hours, and to allow some time for public comment.

Sellwood Bridge March on January 31
In the meantime, in advance of the PAG meeting, an independent group of Sellwood neighbors were planning a march on Saturday, January 31st, according to organizer Andrew Cohen. “We’re hoping that the voices of concerned Sellwood residents regarding safety, and supporting the current alignment, are heard,” he said after the meeting. Cohen confirmed that their group obtained permits for the march and for a 15-minute bridge closure.

The rally was slated to start at the Sellwood Community Center, S.E. Spokane Street at SE 15th, at 9:30 am that morning, after which the group was to march to the crest of the bridge and then back east to Sellwood Middle School, at S.E. Umatilla and 15th, for an information session.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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