Tag: Sellwood Bridge

Congestion by Design on the New Sellwood Bridge

By John A. Charles, Jr.

Portland-area motorists who have to regularly cross the Sellwood Bridge may wonder why the new structure is twice as wide as the 1925 bridge, yet has the same number of travel lanes. The answer is simple. Portland transportation planners don’t want to solve traffic congestion problems; they prefer to make them worse.

We know this because 20 years ago, Metro published a report entitled the “South Willamette River Crossing Study” (SWRCS), which examined the long-term bridge needs in the stretch of the Willamette River from the Marquam Bridge down to Oregon City. The study found that by 2015, levels of traffic congestion on those bridges would be at “unacceptable or grossly unacceptable levels” if new capacity wasn’t provided.

The study also looked at numerous potential sites for a new bridge but ultimately recommended that no new crossings be constructed. The Metro Council decided instead to focus on “transportation demand management” (TDM) to address the growing congestion.  TDM is an amorphous concept utilizing public relations campaigns and regulatory mandates to encourage drivers to shift to other modes of travel.

Once the decision by Metro was made to place a freeze on new bridge capacity, it was easy for the City of Portland to implement a new policy downsizing Tacoma Street in Sellwood from a four-lane arterial to a two-lane “Main Street,” with lower speed limits. That made it politically impossible for Multnomah County, owner of the Sellwood Bridge, to replace the aging structure with a four-lane bridge.

The decision to build a new bridge was made in 2006, and construction began in 2012. The design featured two 12-foot-wide travel lanes for motor vehicles, two 12-foot-wide sidewalks, and two bike lanes. All the proponents claimed that dedicating more through-capacity for cyclists and pedestrians than vehicles would create a world-class, multi-modal showpiece that would finally tame the automobile and shift drivers to other modes.

In fact, when a USDOT official spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony while presenting an oversized check for $17 million, she told the audience, “We looked all over the country for the best projects, and I have to say, the application for the Sellwood Bridge project knocked it out of the park!”

Unfortunately, all of the hype turned out to be wrong. Extensive monitoring by Cascade Policy Institute over the past three years shows that on a typical day, motor vehicles account for 95% of all passenger-trips. Transit gets about 2%, and walking/cycling combined garner the final 3%. Traffic congestion is growing worse by the month because regional population is growing and the bridge infrastructure has not kept pace.

With a price tag of $328 million, the new bridge is 43 times more expensive than the original; but it’s not 43 times more useful. In fact, it’s less useful, because trucks are not allowed and TriMet never restored the promised transit service.

Metro’s no-growth policy was a predictable failure. It’s time for the Metro Council to admit the mistake, and begin a new planning process with the goal of building at least one new bridge for motorists in the South Willamette River Corridor.

John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research institute. A version of this article appeared in The Portland Tribune on July 11, 2019.

Click here for PDF version:


Read Blog Detail

The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled

By John A. Charles. Jr.

Executive Summary

Portland has an international reputation for successfully integrating land-use and transportation planning. The primary goals of such planning are to limit the physical size of the city and reduce the daily use of private motor vehicles by encouraging alternative modes of travel.

Many transportation policies have been developed in support of these goals. One of the most visible has been the policy of slowing vehicle speeds through “traffic calming” and “road diets.” Advocates claim that reducing road capacity for motor vehicles has only minor effects on travel time. They also assert that future demand for road space can be mitigated through mode-shifting from single-occupant driving to walking, biking and transit.

In the late 1990s the Sellwood Bridge and its eastside connector, Tacoma Street, provided a perfect opportunity to test both the concept of integrated planning as well as the strategy of implementing a road diet. The original Sellwood Bridge opened in 1925, and over the next 60 years it became the most heavily traveled two-lane bridge in the state. By the mid-1980s the Bridge was badly in need of either major remediation or replacement.

Multnomah County, which owned and operated it, imposed vehicle weight limits in 1985 and again in 2004. After the second reduction, all heavy vehicles (including transit buses) were prohibited.

With traffic levels continuing to rise, it was clear that Multnomah County needed to either build a wider replacement bridge or a two-lane replacement plus another bridge nearby to the south. Local planners, however, believed the Portland region to be overly reliant on the private automobile and decided to place a moratorium on any new Willamette River bridge capacity. They assumed that if the region simply stopped building bridges, they could persuade people to switch from driving to some other mode.

Soon thereafter, the City of Portland undertook a study of Tacoma Street in the Sellwood-Moreland neighborhood, with the goal of making it more pedestrian-friendly. The result of that process was a recommendation to downsize Tacoma from a four-lane collector to a two-lane “Main Street,” even though Tacoma was already a two-lane road except for four hours each weekday – 7-9 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. – when street parking was disallowed so that traffic flowing to and from the bridge could move faster. Striped crosswalks were also recommended in three locations between SE 6th and 13th, to allow pedestrians to safely cross mid-block.

Tacoma Street was put on a “road diet” in 2002, in which two travel lanes in each direction became one travel lane each way along with a center turn lane.  These changes meant the Sellwood Bridge replacement would also inevitably be limited to two traffic lanes. While the new bridge was designed to be more than twice as wide as the original, more than half the through-lane capacity was allocated to non-motorized uses. The County made this decision even though 98% of all peak-hour passenger-trips on the old bridge had taken place in motorized vehicles.

The new Sellwood Bridge opened for travel in February 2016. The north side cycling/walking facilities were open, but the south side bikeway and shared-use sidewalk did not open until 2017.

Now that the bridge has been fully operational for more than two years, it’s possible to measure actual travel patterns and compare them with the forecasted results. It turns out that the transportation planners were wrong in their prediction of how future travel needs would be met.

Traffic congestion is worse than before. Cycling and walking levels have not gone up as predicted, and transit service is far below the levels promised in the planning documents. Moreover, peak-hour vehicle throughput on the bridge has been permanently reduced due to new traffic signals at either end of the bridge and lowered speed limits.

Since bridge “supply” was reduced but motorized travel “demand” went up with population growth, motorists have increasingly resorted to cutting through side streets north and south of Tacoma in order to gain access to the bridge. In fact, the Tacoma Street downsizing made this practice easier by creating a middle turn lane that creates shelter for motorists trying to enter the traffic queue from side streets. This has degraded the quality of life for nearby residents.

Although the new Sellwood Bridge was marketed as a cutting-edge example of the Portland commitment to “multi-modalism,” the bridge itself is not even a multi-modal facility. Heavy trucks are prohibited, and there is no bus service most of the time. Average daily travel is actually more reliant on the private automobile than it was in 1993.

This paper examines the rationale for putting the Sellwood Bridge/Tacoma Street corridor on a road diet and compares actual travel data with pre-construction forecasts. It offers a cautionary note for city leaders who are planning for growth by shrinking important arterials such as Naito Parkway, Foster Road, and NE Broadway.


John A. Charles, Jr. is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute, a position he has held since 2004. He received a BA degree with honors from University of Pittsburgh and an MPA degree from Portland State University. He has been writing about transportation policy for more than 30 years. The focus of his research is utilizing field studies to determine how the built environment influences urban travel behavior. He has co-authored case studies of transit-oriented developments in the Portland region related to the South Waterfront district, Hillsboro’s Orenco Station, and Steele Park in Washington County. His most recent paper is entitled, Why Cities and Counties Should Consider Leaving TriMet.

Read Blog Detail

Press Release: Multi-year case study of Multnomah County’s Sellwood Bridge explains the history behind worsening traffic congestion in the SE Portland bridge corridor

June 6, 2019


Media Contact:
John A. Charles, Jr.

PORTLAND, OR – Today Cascade Policy Institute released the results of a seven-year case study of the Sellwood Bridge reconstruction, The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled.

The evidence shows that even though the new Sellwood Bridge is more than twice as wide as the original bridge, it moves fewer people at peak hours. Moreover, use of the bridge by cyclists and pedestrians has not increased significantly, despite the generous facilities provided for them.

As a result, traffic congestion in the bridge corridor is worse than it was in 2012, and cut-through traffic in the Sellwood neighborhood has seriously degraded the quality of life for those living and working there.

The increase in traffic congestion was actually planned for by Metro more than 20 years ago, when the regional agency placed a moratorium on any new Willamette River bridge capacity for motor vehicles between the Marquam Bridge and Oregon City. Metro believed that if a bridge cap was imposed, significant numbers of people could be diverted from auto travel to biking, walking, or transit.

Their assumptions were wrong. During two years of intensive field monitoring by Cascade Policy Institute, the combined travel share for biking and walking never exceeded three percent, as shown below:

Sellwood Bridge Travel Patterns, 2017-18

Based on hourly sampling

Year Total observed passenger-trips Auto share Transit share Bike share Pedestrian share
2017 13,593 95.1% 2.2% 2.2% 0.5%
2018 19,888 95.2% 1.9% 2.4% 0.6%


Although the new Sellwood Bridge was marketed as a cutting-edge example of the Portland commitment to “multi-modalism,” the bridge itself is not even a multi-modal facility. Heavy trucks are prohibited, and there is no bus service most of the time. Average daily travel is actually more reliant on the private automobile than it was in 1993.

According to Cascade Policy Institute President John A. Charles, Jr., who directed the study,

“Portland-area planners have long believed they could change travel behavior by starving the road system while promoting alternative modes such as transit, walking, and biking. The evidence from the Sellwood Bridge reconstruction shows that wider sidewalks are not a substitute for increased road capacity.”

John Charles is President and CEO of Cascade Policy Institute and has written about transportation policy for more than 30 years. The focus of his research is utilizing field studies to determine how the built environment influences urban travel behavior. Charles received a BA degree with honors from University of Pittsburgh and an MPA degree from Portland State University.

The full report, The New Sellwood Bridge: Promises Unfulfilled, can be downloaded here.

Founded in 1991, Cascade Policy Institute is Oregon’s free-market public policy research center. Cascade’s mission is to explore and promote public policy alternatives that foster individual liberty, personal responsibility, and economic opportunity. For more information, visit cascadepolicy.org.



Read Blog Detail