Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 2.5.09

A Good Trade
ODOT responds to I-5 bridge impacts
By David Sonnichsen

It is surprising that during the digging Alan Pittman did for his “Bridge Impacts” news story (1/22), he didn’t report that the city of Eugene will receive substantial wetland acreage from the Oregon Department of Transportation — formerly allocated to the West Eugene Parkway —to mitigate the disruption of parkland flanking the I-5 Willamette River bridge. The final number of acres is still being negotiated. 

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) mandates this kind of compensation whenever a public park is affected by construction for six months or more. The Whilamut Natural Area of Alton Baker Park will be affected from this April through at least December 2012, while two existing spans are demolished and new ones built. 

Pittman is right — the new bridges are too wide. But the same FHWA that tells ODOT it cannot design these spans any narrower also applies Rule 6(f) of its code to provide mitigation for impacted land. Eugene’s Parks and Open Space (POS) division would maintain the additional west Eugene acreage in its natural state. (Rule 6(f) does not require that compensatory property must be contiguous to an area about to be affected.) Getting wetlands back that were once scheduled to be filled and paved by a boondoggle boulevard? How great is that? 

This isn’t the only example of ODOT deciding to do the right thing. The Citizen Planning Committee (CPC) for the Whilamut Natural Area of Alton Baker Park passed a motion last year for improved safety and aesthetics along the canoe canal path under I-5, which will be heavily used by pedestrians and bicyclists while the main route flanking the north side of the river is closed for construction. 

ODOT hesitated, then agreed, and is working with the CPC, Eugene POS and the Willamalane Park and Recreation District to design a path with safer sightlines, a more natural canoe canal watercourse, and a separate Pre’s Trail running path under the freeway. Right now the concrete channel, asphalt path and chain-link fencing look like they belong in The Bronx, not in a natural area. 

If the new bridges are built as designed, another praiseworthy environmental and aesthetic improvement will be a Willamette River free of more than 30 grotesque pillars which now bite into the riverbed. They would be replaced by graceful arches meeting in the middle of the river. 

As most people know, even this is a compromise. Last year ODOT’s Community Advisory Group and its Project Development Team overwhelmingly recommended a “through arch” design, which would have extended arches above the bridge deck, as well as opening up the river. 

Nobody on the inside has commented on ODOT’s backroom rejection of a bridge it had said it could afford. Department officials have given qualified apologies, and called the abrupt design reversal a “hiccup” in the process. It was more like a heart attack. 

But that’s another column. If these bridges are built, not only will the adjacent parkland and river be healthier (after looking like hell for the next four years), but a wetland ecosystem on the other side of the city will continue to function as intact public land. 

If something stops the project and ODOT decides to repair and retrofit the existing bridges to meet seismic safety requirements, all those ugly pillars would remain in the river indefinitely. 

That could provide an opening for eventually adding ramps to and from Franklin Boulevard. Such ramps would amount to two additional freestanding bridges, and would be so expensive that aesthetics would not be considered. Such ramps would be supported by even more pillars in the Willamette. With a design almost ready to be built which eliminates existing pillars in favor of a more open riverscape, adding unsightly ramps later would be an unacceptable step backward. 


David Sonnichsen of Eugene is chair of the Government Relations Subcommittee of the Citizen Planning Committee for the Whilamut Natural Area of Alton Baker Park, and a member of the Community Advisory Group for the I-5/Willamette River bridge.