PORTLAND SEEMS to forget about Swan Island. So here's a primer on the place: The industrial spit of land isolated from the city by the steep Willamette Bluffs is an economic powerhouse. The strip is home to some of the city's only large employers that don't require a commute to the 'burbs, with 211 businesses employing nearly 10,000 people (about 2.6 percent of the city's total workforce).
Many of those employees, especially at freight company Daimler Trucks, would like to bike to work. And about 200 hardcore commuters already do, despite the ride to Swan Island being a harrowing excursion on large, fast, busy roads like North Going.
Making Swan Island more bike friendly for workers is a golden opportunity for the city to meet its goal of tripling bike trips by 2030. But despite big plans for the place, the city might be short-changing that dream before it really even starts.
Portland's parks bureau has long planned a second Springwater Corridor-like biking and walking trail—the fabled North Portland Greenway—that would stretch from downtown all the way up to Kelley Point Park. It would link Swan Island and Willamette River land throughout North Portland to the rest of the city.
But in the most recent plans for the North Portland Greenway, the city sidelined the flattest, most direct, off-street route from Swan Island to downtown for a path that runs up steep and busy North Greeley and North Interstate.
While the parks bureau wants what it calls a "buildable" plan, the route swap has both Swan Island workers and the Friends of the North Portland Greenway Trail citizen advocacy group worried the city won't fight for a path that workers and families will actually want to use.
"It's not a Willamette neighborhood greenway, it's a trail along a truck route," says Friends of the North Portland Greenway Trail chair Francie Royce. "An easy route for them politically is a miserable route for bikers and walkers."
The route the workers and advocates want the city to prioritize is tantalizing: It's already paved. It's flat. And it runs directly from Swan Island to the Broadway Bridge. It cuts in half the bike-commute time to get downtown. But, unfortunately, it's illegal to use. Union Pacific owns the road, which is called the Ash Grove Cement Road. While the Cement Road connects to the street right next to Daimler—near where the island's bike path dead ends—its entrance has large signs warning, "No Trespassing."
"Who commutes on the Cement Road?" Lenny Anderson, director of the Swan Island Business Association, asked at a surprisingly packed lunch meeting of Daimler bike commuters last week. About a quarter of the 60 people in the standing-room-only meeting raised their hands. "Who would like to use it?" he asked, and all hands went up.
"I moved to Portland in part because I like biking," says Daimler engineer John Furtado. "I found this job in the city. Little did I know it's one of the worst places to bike. It's unacceptable that one of the biggest employment centers in the city has such sub-par bike access."
The cyclists want the city and local employers to pressure Union Pacific to sell the road.
"What we have here is a stalemate," says Anderson. "This isn't going to be softball."
There's a joke among planners about dealing with the railroads: On the spectrum of tough negotiations, first there's neighbors, then there's other local governments, the state government, and then the feds. Then God. And then the railroads.
"They're not interested in giving things away," sums up longtime Portland transportation activist and rail enthusiast Jim Howell. "But I don't think it's impossible. My guess is, [the city's] chances aren't very good. Unless the city has something Union Pacific might want."
Several of the city's most heavily used transit corridors were once railroad land that the city skillfully negotiated to buy or use. The MAX light-rail lines along Interstate 84 run through chunks of former railroad land, notes Howell, as does the Springwater Corridor and the trail across the Steel Bridge.
For its part, Union Pacific says it's entirely uninterested in selling off the road. Railroad maintenance trucks drive the route daily to get around the Albina yards. It's crossed in several places by active rail lines. And Union Pacific might want it for future expansion, emails railroad rep Brock Nelson.
Parks officials say the path up North Greeley would be built in addition to the railroad path, which will remain on the map as a trail and be acquired. Someday.
That amounts to a false hope, says Royce. Once money is spent to build the trail along steep and busy Greeley, there will be less political will and fewer financial resources to negotiate for the railroad path.
Says Royce, "Our opportunity is now."