Community voice needed for emergency routes

By Donna Cohen and Sabina Blizzard

In case of an emergency such as the subduction zone earthquake, the northernmost peninsula, St. Johns, Rivergate, and Cathedral Park, will be severed from the rest of Portland due to the collapse of four bridges over the railroad cut. Each of these bridges–at Columbia, Fessenden, Lombard and Willamette–is over 100 years old, and not built to current seismic standards. Additionally, many areas near water bodies, including everything north of the Columbia Slough will liquefy, making the land too soft and unstable for vehicles. So, there will be no going down to the water with your boat!

Bridge locations on Emergency Earthquake Access Routes in the North Portland Peninsula
Bridge locations on emergency earthquake access routes in the North Portland peninsula

In such an event, the Willamette will most likely be impassible, filled with debris and possibly with fossil fuel fires and smoke. The petroleum tank farm across the river, known as the Critical Energy Infrastructure Hub, will be damaged, with some tanks rupturing and causing sparks that could ignite the fuels. So, even if the St. Johns Bridge is left standing, that will not be a direction you will want to go!

It is important to secure a passage for emergency medical, grocery and supply vehicles into and out of the peninsula in any emergency.  During and after a large earthquake, families could be geographically separated and will need to reunite via a safe route. St. Johns’ supplies are limited and there is no medical facility to manage trauma injuries. It we do not have a viable vehicle emergency route, the northernmost peninsula may experience weeks to months without needed supplies, medical care, or infrastructure repairs.

How to stay informed and know when to provide comment:

  1. Go to the PDX 2040 Freight Plan webpage and sign up for email alerts,
  2. Join the St. Johns/North Peninsula Emergency Route Facebook page,
  3. If you are not on Facebook, join our email list by emailing us at
  4. Spread the word to others!

What can be done? Two of the routes over the cut, at Columbia Blvd. and Lombard are official emergency routes. However, in order for them to be viable routes in a large earthquake, both bridges need to be rebuilt. We are making progress on Columbia Blvd. because the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) appears to be aware and responsive to the issue. They have begun an engineering study to determine requirements for a new bridge. However, it should be noted that rebuilding funds have not been secured.

The Lombard St. bridge is more complicated since it’s under the combined ownership of both the railroad and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT). It is considered an orphan bridge because no one has taken responsibility for its maintenance or replacement.

The best way to ensure that the emergency routes get needed attention–both at Columbia and Lombard–is to make sure they are included in the new Portland 2040 Freight Plan. The Plan prioritizes securing routes needed by freight trucks, and both Columbia and Lombard are vital corridors for freight. Inclusion in the plan is a critical first step!

What can you do? The public draft of the 2040 Freight Plan is coming out soon for public comment. That means we have an opportunity to advocate for prioritizing these two critical routes to keep the north end of the peninsula connected to the rest of city in the event of an earthquake. It’s imperative that we comment and advocate that both routes be prioritized as designated emergency routes!

Together we can protect St. Johns, Cathedral Park and Rivergate by securing permanent and viable emergency routes! Please join us in this effor

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