First Look: New Waud Bluff Trail connects North Portland to Swan Island

First Look: New Waud Bluff Trail connects North Portland to Swan Island

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The Waud Bluff Trail is finally open for business.
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)


A long-awaited path between North Portland and Swan Island is finally complete. Yesterday, Portland Parks & Recreation took down the construction barriers and moved their heavy equipment off the Waud Bluff Trail. The new path connects N. Willamette Blvd (at N. Harvard St) to N. Basin Ave on Swan Island (map).

This $3.2 million project, which consists of a 1,700 foot path and a bridge over railroad tracks, has taken nearly eight years to complete. It was awarded Transportation Enhancement grant funds back in April 2005 (part of the funds came from a Congressional earmark sponsored by Representative Earl Blumenauer) and construction began in fall of 2011.

Parks spokesman Mark Ross says the path won’t be 100% complete and officially open until next week; but after hearing it was open to the public as of yesterday, I rolled up to take a closer look.

As I’d approached on N Willamette, the first thing I noticed were are a new row of bike racks at the entrance to the path. They’ve made a nice paved area at the top where you can park bikes and take in the fantastic view of the river, Swan Island, downtown, and even Mt. Hood (on a clear day)!

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Unfortunately, access to the path entrance is horrendous due to high-speed traffic buzzing by on Willamette Blvd. Currently, this is a collision just waiting to happen; but help is on the way. Parks says they plan to install a traffic median island and a crosswalk on Willamette at Harvard by the end of next week, “to address longstanding concerns about access to the trail and the nearby TriMet bus stop.”

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Crossing the street to access the new path is one concern. Another is leaving the path entrance and re-joining traffic on Willamette. This will continue to be a tricky situation because both auto and bike traffic at this location tends to go fast and there is zero extra shoulder space to merge and/or get up to speed. The new crosswalk, signage, and median island will help a lot because it will encourage people to slow down. Also, the mere presence of more people and the path itself will (I hope) calm traffic.

Once on the path itself, my first impression was how steep it is. It’s literally a straight shot down to the bridge and the path varies in grade from 10-13% (a loss of 100 feet of elevation in 0.2 miles):

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Looking back up.
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Nice new retaining walls.
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Grab those brakes!!

This hill will be very tempting to ride down (the only other rider I saw yesterday was a guy doing about 20 mph) and I can only imagine what local kids on skateboards will do. The steepness of the path also means riding up is a chore (if not an impossibility), especially for people pulling cargo/kid trailers.

As we reported in November 2011, a new sign will encourage people on bikes to walk them down the trail. Skateboards, scooters, and rollerblades will also be expressly prohibited. I think some people will gladly heed this advice; but others won’t. According to Parks, the U.S. Coast Guard (based right at the bottom of the path) will take advantage of the steepness and plans to use it for physical training.

I have a feeling the path’s 10-feet of width (which was supposed to be 12, but funding cuts trimmed it down), will be fully utilized in the busy months.

Once down to the new bridge, there are spots to hang out and take in the view. To the northwest, I could see the railroad tracks at the base of the bluff below University of Portland (where the future North Portland Greenway Trail will go!) and to the southwest I could check out Swan Island and the US Coast Guard research vessel.

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The bridge itself if beautiful. It has a natural, rusted steel finish and it looks great:

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Then come the stairs. This was an issue I brought up back in 2011 and my concerns were warranted. People with bikes will face three very steep flights of stairs. Yes, there’s a wheel gutter on both sides of the stairs, but they are far from user-friendly. For folks that have big bikes with racks (like mine) or cargo bikes or bikes with child seats and/or trailers, the wheel gutters are unusable. There will be some major lifting going on. (I think Walnut Studiolo should have a frame handle vending machine at the top and bottom of the stairs. I used mine and it made the lifting much easier.)

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Once I made it down the stairs, I hopped back on the bike and rolled through 700 feet of newly paved path (with lots of nice new native plants alongside it). The path connects directly to N. Basin Ave. If this new path becomes popular with people riding bikes, it could put added pressure to create some sort of bikeway connection on Basin. Currently, it is not a pleasant place to ride. I suspect many people will ride on the sidewalks; but even that will be dicey with all the industrial traffic and large street intersections to deal with.

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Fortunately, there are plans in the works (as part of the North Portland Greenway project) to create a high-quality bikeway on Basin Ave. This is great news because it would create a nice loop ride consisting of Willamette Blvd (which is in dire need of better bike access), the Waud Bluff Trail, Basin, and then back up to the Concord Neighborhood Greenway via the sidewalk/path on N. Going Ave.

While not a perfect for bicycling by any stretch, the Waud Bluff Trail is an exciting, new, non-motorized connection that we sorely needed. Stay tuned for details on grand opening festivities planned for May.

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