Sunday, September 27, 2009

How to walk the Interstate Bridge (and not die), while you still can




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So I thought I'd go and walk across the Interstate Bridge a while back. Back in April, actually, and I'm only getting the post together now. And prior to walking the bridge, there was a span of several months between when I decided to have a go at it and when I actually did it. Everything about the Interstate seems like an enormous undertaking. It's a very long bridge, over a very wide river, and it carries a very busy freeway; the whole thing got to be quite a daunting prospect. If it hadn't occurred to me to break the adventure up and do the North Portland Harbor Bridge on a different day, I'm not sure I'd have gotten around to it yet, quite honestly. It's not the distance exactly; I'm not that out of shape. Finding a few free (i.e. meeting-less) hours on a sunny day was the problem. It doesn't actually take a few hours, but I hate feeling rushed when I do these bridge things. If you do that, you hurry through and don't notice everything you should, and you miss out on a lot of good photos that way.

So the plan for this adventure was to park in the 'Couve, walk across to the Oregon side, cross under the freeway, and walk back on the other side of the bridge. I figured this was an important detail because the northbound and southbound sides are technically separate bridges; the northbound one was built in 1917, and the southbound companion wasn't built until 1958. It's natural to think of them as a unit though, since they're two halves of the same logical bridge, they always open in unison, and the 1958 bridge was designed to look almost identical to the original -- which showed a remarkable amount of historical sensitivity, by 1958 standards.  And since I am who I am, it was crucial to walk both sides for the sake of completeness.  I'm sorry, it's just a thing with me, I guess.

Columbia River bridges weren't originally part of the ongoing bridge project, but I figured I ought to at least cover the Interstate before the Powers That Be tear it out and replace it. That's not going to happen quite immediately; the project -- which goes by the kinda-pretentious name "Columbia River Crossing" -- is supposed to cost billions and billions of dollars, and the handwringing has only just begun, and nobody's entirely certain where the money's going to come from -- but it's reasonable to assume the clock's ticking. Not everyone's sold on the idea, though, and there's a school of thought that suggests we don't genuinely need a new bridge, and building the big 12-lane beast they're considering will just drive suburban sprawl on the far reaches of the 'Couve, and in a few years we'll be back to the level of congestion we see now.

I don't have a firm opinion about the new bridge one way or the other, and I'm not convinced the interwebs need yet another angry blogger ranting and shrieking on about it, either pro or con. I have, however, gotten a bit tired of people heaping scorn on the existing bridge all the time. It's held up rather well for a bridge from 1917, and people have mostly forgotten what a huge achievement it was back when it was first built.  People of the era really poured their hopes and dreams into the thing -- it's fair to call it obsolete, but bashing it just seems kind of tacky.

As evidence of what a big deal the Interstate Bridge once was, consider the set of plaques at both ends of the bridge, which bear a variety of inscriptions.  Some list the contractors who built the bridge, or provide various vital statistics about it. Others carry quotations by various historical figures on the subject of bridges.  The Final Report by the engineers who designed and built the bridge includes copies of the inscriptions, which I'm reproducing here:

1915
THIS BRIDGE IS DEDICATED TO THE
CITIZENS OF OREGON AND WASHINGTON BY
WHOM ITS ERECTION WAS ORDAINED. IT WAS
CONCEIVED OF THEIR VISION, ITS FOUNDA-
TIONS ARE LAID UPON THEIR SACRIFICES.
THE SPIRITUAL HERITAGE OF COURAGE, FAITH
AND HIGH ENDEAVOR BEQUEATHED TO THIS
GENERATION BY THE PIONEERS WHO WRESTED
FROM THE WILDERNESS THESE WIDE AND FRUIT-
FUL LANDS, IS BUILDED INTO ITS MEMBERS
OF STONE AND STEEL AND HERE HANDED DOWN
TO THE GENERATIONS THAT COME AFTER.

1917



THE COLUMBIA RIVER INTERSTATE BRIDGE
BUILT BY THE PEOPLE OF CLARKE COUNTY
WASHINGTON. AND MULTNOMAH COUNTY OREGON,
UNDER DIRECTION OF THE COLUMBIA RIVER
INTERSTATE BRIDGE COMMISSION, RUFUS C
HOLMAN
, CHAIRMAN, COMMISSIONERS FOR
CLARKE COUNTY, A. RAWSON, CHAIRMAN. W S.
LINDSAY, JOHN P. KIGGINS. COMMISSIONERS
FOR MULTNOMAH COUNTY, W. L. LIGHTNER.
CHAIRMAN, PHILO HOLBROOK, RUFUS C. HOLMAN.
THE GOVERNOR OF OREGON. LEGAL ADVISERS.
WALTER H. EVANS, JAMES O. BLAIR. ARTHUR
MURPHY. CONSTRUCTION BEGAN MARCH. 191S.
COMPLETED JANUARY, 1917.

The "Clarke County" bit is actually not a typo. Despite being named for non-'e' William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame, the county was named "Clarke" until 1925. Which is kind of fitting actually. If you've ever read Lewis & Clark's journals, you've probably noticed their, uh, individualistic approach to English orthography.



THE COLUMBIA RIVER INTERSTATE BRIDGE
DESIGNED AND BUILT UNDER DIRECTION OF
JOHN LYLE HARRINGTON. KANSAS CITY, MO.,
WADDELL & HARRINGTON (NOW DISSOLVED ) ,L0 UIS
R. ASH & ERNEST E. HOWARD, CONSULTING
ENGINEERS. F. M. CORTELYOU. RESDT. ENGR.



CONTRACTORS: MANUFACTURE OF STEEL.
AMERICAN BRIDGE COMPANY. NORTHWEST STEEL
COMPANY. ERECTION, PORTER BROTHERS.
FOUNDATIONS. THE PACIFIC BRIDGE COMPANY.
EMBANKMENTS. TACOMA DREDGING COMPANY,
STANDARD AMERICAN DREDGING COMPANY.
PAVEMENTS, WARREN CONSTRUCTION COMPANY.



"OF ALL INVENTIONS, THE ALPHABET
AND THE PRINTING PRESS ALONE EXCEPTED,
THOSE INVENTIONS WHICH ABRIDGE DISTANCE
HAVE DONE MOST FOR THE CIVILISATION OF
OUR SPECIES. EVERY IMPROVEMENT OF THE
MEANS OF LOCOMOTION BENEFITS MANKIND
MORALLY AND INTELLECTUALLY AS WELL AS
MATERIALLY, AND NOT ONLY FACILITATES
THE INTERCHANGE OF THE VARIOUS PRODUC-
TIONS OF NATURE AND ART, BUT TENDS TO
REMOVE NATIONAL AND PROVINCIAL ANTIPA-
THIES, AND TO BIND TOGETHER ALL THE
BRANCHES OF THE GREAT HUMAN FAMILY."

MACAULAY.
The Macaulay quote is an excerpt from a longer passage about bad roads and taxation in 17th century Britain. This is actually a comment on a website that presents the diary of Samuel Pepys in blog form, which is a clever and intriguing notion.



THE COLUMBIA RIVER INTERSTATE BRIDGE.
TOTAL LENGTH OF BRIDGE AND APPROACHES
4^ MILES. COMPLETED JANUARY, 1917. TOTAL
COST $1,760,000. THE BRIDGE OVER THE COLUM-
BIA RIVER 3,531 FT. LONG. CONSISTS OF ONE 50
FT. SPAN, THREE 275 FT. SPANS AND TEN 265 FT.
SPANS; AND CONTAINS 7350 TONS OF STEEL,
17.650 SQ. YDS. OF REINFORCED CONCRETE
DECK, 15.000 SQ. YDS. OF PAVEMENT. 21.600 CU.
YDS. OF PIERS SUPPORTED ON PILES EXTEND-
ING TO 160 FT. BELOW ROADWAY. THE TOWERS
EXTEND TO 190 FT. ABOVE ROADWAY.



"YOU MAY TELL ME THAT MY VIEWS ARE
VISIONARY. THAT THE DESTINY OF THIS COUN-
TRY IS LESS EXALTED. THAT THE AMERICAN
PEOPLE ARE LESS GREAT THAN I THINK THEY
ARE OR OUGHT TO BE. I ANSWER. IDEALS ARE
LIKE STARS. YOU WILL NOT SUCCEED IN TOUCH-
ING THEM WITH YOUR HANDS. BUT LIKE THE
SEA-FARING MAN ON THE DESERT OF WATERS.
YOU CHOOSE THEM AS YOUR GUIDES AND
FOLLOWING THEM, YOU REACH YOUR DESTINY."

-CARL SCHURZ.

The bio's worth a read. I'd never heard of Mr. Schurz before, and I had no idea anyone managed to be both an 1848 German revolutionary, and a Union general during the US Civil War, among other things. Of course you never read a lot about prominent German-American immigrants in history. World wars tend to result in that sort of thing being quietly forgotten, I suppose.



THE COLUMBIA RIVER INTERSTATE BRIDGE
APPROACHES

THE BRIDGE OVER OREGON SLOUGH. 1.137 FT.
LONG. CONSISTS OF ONE 115 FT. SPAN AND TEN
100 FT. SPANS. THE BRIDGE OVER COLUMBIA
SLOUGH IS 307 FT. LONG AND CONSISTS OF FOUR
75 FT. SPANS. THESE BRIDGES CONTAIN 1,725
TONS OF STEEL. 7.150 SQ. YDS. OF REINFORCED
CONCRETE DECK. 6,100 SQ. YDS. OF PAVEMENT,
5,700 CU. YDS. OF PIERS. THE EMBANKMENTS
HAVE A COMBINED LENGTH OF 18.000 FT. AND
CONTAIN 1,500,000 CU. YDS. PAVEMENT ON EM-
BANKMENTS 56.000 SQ. YDS.



"THEREFORE WHEN WE BUILD. LET
US THINK THAT WE BUILD FOREVER. LET
IT NOT BE FOR PRESENT DELIGHT, NOR
FOR PRESENT USE ALONE. LET IT BE SUCH
WORK AS OUR DESCENDANTS WILL THANK US
FOR, AND LET US THINK, AS WE LAY STONE
ON STONE, THAT A TIME IS TO COME WHEN
THOSE STONES WILL BE HELD SACRED BE-
CAUSE OUR HANDS HAVE TOUCHED THEM, AND
THAT MEN WILL SAY AS THEY LOOK UPON
THE LABOR. AND WROUGHT SUBSTANCE OF
THEM. 'SEE THIS OUR FATHERS DID FOR
US.'"

RUSKIN.

The Ruskin quite is also inscribed on the floor of the Chicago Tribune Tower. And undoubtedly elsewhere, as you can probably imagine how this sentiment would appeal to architects. A few other uses of it here and there on the web too, apparently now including the humble blog you're currently reading.

It's hard to see all those and not develop a sentimental attachment to the bridge, regardless of how obsolete it might be. People always go on about how much they love the Hawthorne, and the Interstate is a very similar design, just a lot bigger. Ok, and with noisy triple trailer semis barreling past you at slightly over the speed limit (which can't really be helped, this being an interstate freeway). But on the bright side, there's actual bridge structure between you and traffic, which you don't get on the Hawthorne, so it's almost certainly safer. (Consider this accident from last June -- if a truck's going to lose a load of rebar, I'd kind of prefer to have something solid between it and me.) And there isn't a problem with bike congestion like the Hawthorne gets these days, so there's that. Plus the view from the bridge is something you won't see any other way, unless you're stuck in traffic on the bridge, and even then it's somehow just not the same. Watch the river from the bridge for a few minutes, and you'll quickly realize that the Columbia is a serious river, fast and wide and deep and quite unlike the (mostly) tame little Willamette.

For whatever it's worth, Wikipedia's list of rivers by length has the Columbia at #51 worldwide. If you sort that list by average volume (in cubic meters per second), it comes in at #26, or at #20 if you delete everything that's a tributary of some other river. Ok, so that's almost certainly wrong (since the list is missing volume stats for a large number of rivers), and meaningless even if it was accurate. But it should at least get across the general idea that this isn't some seasonal arroyo or lazy bayou here.

As a result, it's a long walk across the bridge. This can't really be helped; in fact, under current plans the new bridge will be an even longer walk, since it will have to be built in a curve around the site of the current bridge (which will remain open while the new bridge is built).

In addition to the length, access to the bridge is an issue. It's not obvious how to get to either end of the bridge, and I had to stare at Google maps for a while before figuring it out. The bridge walkways end practically right at the water's edge on each side. On the Vancouver side it's at least sort of close to downtown Vancouver. Columbia St. continues south from the downtown core a bit and curves under the bridge, becoming Columbia Way at that point. There are spiral ramps on each side leading from the street up to the bridge; as small and obscure as they look, they're your one and only way to get on or off the bridge if you're walking or on a bike. I think the street has sidewalks the whole way through here, and it's not all that busy, so it ought to be safe once you know how to find it. On the Hayden Island side, you have to navigate the Jantzen Beach freeway interchange and the adjacent maze of big-box suburbia, and once you're done you still aren't to the other side of the river. At that point you have to make your way to the North Portland Harbor bridge, and once you've done that you're in industrial NE Portland. You still have to cross the Columbia Slough too, and as of yet there's no bike/ped lane on the I-5 slough bridge. Denver Avenue is nearby but the road's in bad shape. If you're heading into downtown Portland, your best bet is probably to go over to the Expo Center at this point and hop on the MAX train. One more thing to point out: If you're going to be using the west walkway on the bridge, you need to cross under the freeway at some point on Hayden Island, since the harbor bridge only has a bike/ped lane on the east side. It starts right next to Hooters, you can't miss it.

A BikePortland article from last year claimed that the cities of Portland and Vancouver were working on a new map that explained how to get on and off the Interstate Bridge. I can't seem to find a copy of that map online though, so I don't know if they ever followed through on the effort. Maybe they just couldn't figure it out. The article does have a couple of "sneak peek" bits of the map, so maybe if you enlarged those in Photoshop or something you might get a useful map out of it.

Updated 8/13/2010: Ok, the map does exist, and they've even created an instructional video about crossing the bridge safely, believe it or not. The goods are here, courtesy of Metro.

Another problem for pedestrians, and especially cyclists, is that the bridge walkways are very narrow, and the railings are alarmingly low if your center of gravity is up at bike level. Another BikePortland piece discusses whether it would be better to just ride on the freeway instead. The (unusually sensible) consensus there is that riding on the freeway is an exceptionally poor idea. Which brings us to the obligatory "not dying" bit. Don't ride on the freeway, especially at night, thus getting smooshed by a triple trailer semi full of rebar going 75 mph, the driver too busy texting or surfing porn or whatever to notice you puttering along on your trendy fixie bike without lights or reflectors. If I can't convince you not to do this, at least wear a freakin' helmet, or at least don't wear all black. Or if you really must wear all black and not use a helmet for reasons of hipness, well... I was about to suggest you at least do it sober, but it occurs to me that if you're going to do something this monumentally stupid, you might as well be drunk or high when you do it. At least it won't hurt as much that way. And if you survive, and you tell people what you did, and they demand to know why you did something that dumb, you have an instant excuse they can't really argue with. Not that I'm trying to help with this or anything, because I'm not. So don't.

Also, if you're crossing the whole river you'll need to cross the North Portland Harbor bridge too, and the not-dying angle there involved rogue banana peels. So watch out for those too.

Anywayyy, that cheery bit brings us to the inevitable "stuff from around the interwebs" part of the post.

1 comment :

Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Beautifully done. With all the brou-ha-ha about the Columbia River Crossing, an intimate up-close look at the old bridge that is in place now is quite a palate cleanser.

Well done.