ODOT will close sidewalk on St. Johns Bridge for two months

The sidewalks on the St. Johns Bridge are already extremely narrow and stressful.
(Photos: J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Oregon Department of Transportation announced yesterday that a maintenance project on the St. Johns Bridge will result in the closure of one sidewalk for two months. ODOT will close one sidewalk for two, 30-day periods in order to stage construction equipment.

The project, which will reinforce the framework of the bridge to handle more and heavier auto and truck traffic, means bicycle users who use the sidewalks will share the narrow sidewalk space with more people than ever. This is a big deal because the sidewalks are only five feet wide and traffic around the St. Johns Bridge is notoriously unsafe.

This ODOT graphic is very misleading. The sharrows don’t look like that in real life. They are small, worn away, and very easy to miss when you’re in a car. And it’s mathematically and physically impossible for three people to use the sidewalk side-by-side.

Here’s how ODOT describes how the project will impact people who walk and bike:

The St. Johns Bridge will remain open to pedestrians and bicyclists during the project. People who walk, roll and ride bicycles on the sidewalks of the St. Johns bridge will share one sidewalk when the other sidewalk is closed for 30 days at a time for the duration of the 60-day project. There will be a temporary pedestrian access route to guide pedestrians and bicyclists on the sidewalk across the bridge during construction. People on bikes can also choose to ride in the vehicle travel lane.

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While drivers have more room than they need, people on foot and on bikes are forced to squeeze by each other.

When you account for shy distance next to the railing on one side and fast-moving drivers on the other, the bridge’s five-foot wide sidewalks feel like they’re just three feet wide. Communication with other sidewalk users on the bridge is difficult. Bike bells and audible warnings are often not heard due to the deafening roar of auto and truck traffic (not to mention all the people who wear headphones). I’m also concerned about how this sidewalk closure will lead to people crossing over the four bridge lanes to get to the other side.

Thankfully, ODOT said they will reduce the speed limit on the bridge from 35 to 25 mph during the project. The lower speed limit and presence of construction materials will hopefully cause people to drive more cautiously. The St. Johns Bridge does have sharrows, but many people don’t use them because people often drive 40 mph on the bridge. This speed differential (the incline to the center of the bridge span means many people can bike only 7-12 mph) makes it very stressful to “share the road”.

In official project materials ODOT recommends that people get off their bikes and walk before they overtake another sidewalk user.

Beyond the fact that bicycle users and walkers will be forced to share an already narrow space while automobile and truck users will still have all four lanes to use, the St. Johns Bridge is a sore spot for many Portlanders.

In 2005 ODOT undertook a major renovation of the bridge and had an opportunity to install bike lanes. The agency ignored the advice of advocates and a professional traffic study that said the bike lanes wouldn’t have a significant congestion impact and opted to preserve four lanes for driving. They reluctantly installed sharrows three years later. Today, this beautiful and iconic bridge — which serves as a popular and vital connection in Portland’s bike network — remains dangerous for everyone who uses it because ODOT has chosen to prioritize driving speeds and capacity above everything else.

Perhaps ODOT will come to their senses and at least offer a compromise by making the 25 mph speed limit permanent. A source tells us there was broad support for a lower speed limit when ODOT reps attended the St. Johns Neighborhood Association meeting last night. We’ll see.

We have yet to confirm the project start date. If you ride the bridge, please keep me posted with your experiences and work zone conditions.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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