Friday, July 04, 2014

Willamette Boulevard Bridge

The ongoing bridge project takes us back to North Portland, for a different sort of bridge. You might recall an earlier series I did on railroad bridges in North Portland: The Burlington Northern railroad crosses the Columbia River on the Vancouver Railroad Bridge (and the smaller Oregon Slough Railroad Bridge), and crosses the Willamette on a bridge sometimes known as "Bridge 5.1" (meaning 5.1 miles from downtown Portland). In between, as it crosses the peninsula between the Columbia and Willamette, the railroad runs much of the way in the Portsmouth Cut, a wide man-made ravine up to 100' deep, since railroads like to avoid grade changes if possible. The cut forms a sort of artificial canyon between St. Johns and the rest of North Portland, and this gap is crossed by just four bridges, at Columbia Boulevard, Fessenden St., Lombard St., and Willamette Boulevard. We'll be visiting all four eventually, but our destination right now is the Willamette Boulevard Bridge. It has the usual Bridgehunter, Structuræ & pages, if you're interested in bridge-geek stuff; Warren deck truss bridges are not really the most visually exciting things out there, but this and some of the other Portsmouth Cut bridges were designed by Ralph Modjeski, a well-known bridge engineer who also created the aforementioned BNSF railroad bridges as well as Portland's Broadway Bridge. So at least there's a little historical significance here.

In a number of the slides you'll notice this bridge looks a bit... worse for wear. In 2007, the Oregonian sounded an alarm about this bridge, titling their article "10,000 cars a day on rusting hulk". This was the same bout of handwringing over sufficiency ratings that got us a new Sellwood Bridge (now under construction), but nothing's happened here so far. The Sellwood rated a lowly 2 out of 100, while the Willamette Blvd. bridge scored a 47. The fine print, though, indicated that the Sellwood rated so poorly due to carrying far more traffic than it was designed to handle, and was actually in better structural shape than the bridge you see here.

You might wonder how the city let it get so shabby, and why they haven't fixed it. It turns out that fixing it is not the city's job, or the state's job for that matter. Back in 1906 when the railroad line went in, the railroad needed a franchise from the city in order to dig the cut and run the rail line through it. The city noted that the dig would cut through 18 city streets, leaving St. Johns effectively an island. Some degree of haggling went on, and the resulting city ordinance required the railroad to build and maintain up to four bridges over the rail line. That arrangement continues today, and legally the bridges are the railroad's problem. They're not exactly revenue-generating assets, though, and they seem to be prioritized accordingly.

In October 1906, Mayor Harry Lane vetoed the proposal as not serving the city's interests. The four bridges had already been negotiated, but the proposed permanent franchise had no provision requiring the railroad to replace the bridges when they inevitably wore out. The 2007 Oregonian story indicated that the city council overrode Lane's veto. I can't find an archived news story about that, but I assume it must have happened that way since the Portsmouth Cut obviously exists. Here's a big excerpt of Lane's veto message, since I like his writing style:

There is no time limit placed upon this franchise, and the failure to set such a limit upon the life of its franchise is now claimed by the holders of the Fourth-street franchise to make it last forever, which, I here may remark, is an exceedingly long time.

I can see no harm in a franchise granted to last forever if at the same time it contains a provision allowing the people to recall it at any time such grounds of complaint against its further existence as would hold in a just court of law. There is no such provision in this ordinance.

No promise is made to build any new bridges when these wear out, and inasmuch as the franchise is for a cut 100 feet deep and two hundred feet wide, to last forever (if it does last that long), for that same length of time people are going to require bridges to cross the chasm, and for exactly as long as the chasm lasts, so long should bridges be provided.

Presume that lightning destroyed one or more of these bridges, or that some miscreant destroyed one or more of them with dynamite. From that day forth, so far as this franchise is concerned, they would go unbridged or the city would be compelled to build them at its own expense.

As there are 18 streets crossed by this deep cut, and steel bridges of the required type now cost, say $60,000 each, you must allow that it would prove quite expensive. I think that more specific terms should be used in regard to this matter.

In the near future many people will dwell and do business upon the peninsula, and it is within the bounds of reason to suppose that some day some other railway company will wish to enter the city there or thereabouts, and if so another 100-feet deep gash with more bridges would be necessary before it could do so. I think it not unreasonable to require that a common user clause on terms just to all be included in the franchise.

Construction was already underway in December 1906. They used much the same technology as was used to dig the Panama Canal: Steam shovels from the Columbia end of the cut, and hydraulic mining on the Willamette side. Hydraulic mining (which was also employed during the California gold rush) uses high pressure water jets to erode and wash away the land you'd like to be rid of. It's a highly efficient way of digging large holes quickly, so long as you don't really care where all the silt ends up. The Oregonian article about the dig claimed that tailings would be used to fill in low-lying areas around the Willamette River bridge, but I suspect most of the dirt just ended up in the river.

The next year, Lane also vetoed an ordinance authorizing a railroad tunnel under North Portland, on similar "perpetual franchise" grounds. As he'd predicted the year before, a second railroad needed a route through North Portland, and would be unable to use the Portsmouth Cut because the city hadn't insisted on a "common use clause" during the previous negotiations. The tunnel proposal claimed to have a common use provision, but Lane wasn't sold and saw a crucial loophole in the proposal. It's not clear to me sure whether this second veto was overridden as well, but tunnel was eventually built, and today connects Swan Island to industrial North Portland, traveling directly under N. Dana Avenue. In any case, Lane's veto message this time around had a distinct tone of I-told-you-so:

This franchise or grant has a common user clause which allows other railroad companies to use the tunnel upon payment of a just proportion of the cost of the same, but nowhere provides any right of access or egress to said tunnel. In other words, any other railroad company, upon payment of its proportion of the cost of the same, can use the tunnel, providing it can conjure up some means of getting into it, or out of it, which quite naturally it could not do unless it in some way secured a right to use the approaches to such tunnel, which is the right, in my opinion, that should be insisted upon by the representatives of the city before the grant is made.

Also, there is no time limit set upon the life of the grant so far as I can ascertain, it being a perpetual franchise with no restriction, of which grants this city has had experience in the past, and is now having.

The city's interests demand that as few bridges, tunnels and cuts through, over and under its property be made as possible, and in the event that another railroad should come to the city, ordinary foresight suggests that the provisions for the same be made as soon as possible. If the city, through its agents, had taken such a view of the matter when the deep cut across the Peninsula, now in process of construction, was suggested, it would not have been necessary to deface that section of the city with the deep gash which is both destructive to its beauty and its usefulness, nor would the present grant have been asked for.

Also it would have rendered it unnecessary to construct the bridge across the Willamette River, which is now being erected, and which, when completed, will forever be a bar to navigation and add to the cost of every shipment from this port in the future, to the detriment of the community.

The interests of the people are greater than are those of any corporation, and however much any particular company may have suffered at the hands of a most astute or canny rival, in its efforts to secure terminal facilities, the fact remains that we are but the agents of the people, and our duty is to them alone and to none other.

The ownership and maintenance situation apparently remains unchanged to this day. I ran across a 1986 incident in which a city water main broke and washed out two supports for the Willamette Blvd. bridge. The city and railroad fought over who had to pay for repairs. Reports at the time explained that the city technically owned the bridge, but the railroad was on the hook for maintaining it. The railroad argued that since the root cause was a faulty city-owned water main, the city ought to pay for repairs instead. This went on for a while and the bridge remained closed while the sides haggled. In the end, the city ended up footing the bill. Presumably they felt a bit more urgency about getting the bridge reopened than the railroad did. With a historical precedent like that, from the railroad's standpoint it's reasonable to assume that if the bridge gets bad enough, someday the city will either foot the repair bill again, or take it off their hands (and balance sheet) entirely.

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