Built in 1926, the Burnside Bridge is located on one of the longest and busiest thoroughfares in Portland. This iconic 2,241-foot bridge spans the mighty Willamette River and serves as a direct connection between downtown Portland and both the east and west suburbs of Gresham and Beaverton.
And yet, despite its importance – the Burnside Bridge accommodates up to 40,000 vehicles and 2,000 pedestrians per day – it is rapidly aging and will require a major retrofit or replacement sometime within the next 20 years.
Enter Sri Benson. A native Oregonian through and through, Sri was born in Eugene and went to school at Oregon State University, getting his bachelor’s in civil engineering and his master’s in structural engineering.
Today, Benson works for the state-contracted company who evaluates bridge plans to determine if they are safe. In this application, Benson is studying the bridge’s soundness in the event of an earthquake.
“All the bridges in Portland are really old and need to have a seismic rehabilitation done,” he says, before laughing and following it up with, “definitely the bridges are safe, I don’t want anyone to think they aren’t. They just need to be looked at.”
The fact is, if you live in the Pacific Northwest, you’ve heard about it: The Big One. You can hardly get through a week without hearing someone mention it on the local news or public radio station.
Estimates are if the big one hits, the ensuing Tsunami could kill up to 10,000 people living in the coastal areas. But depending on where the earthquake is centered, that human catastrophe won’t be the only problem. If Portland Metro is rattled, it’s quite possible that any number of bridges could be in big trouble.
This is where Benson comes in. “I do a modern analysis of the bridge, then tell the owner, usually the state or county, whether or not it is safe for cars to drive on. Here, it’s a bit different because I am also trying to figure out if it will remain safe if an earthquake hits.”
With most of his work being done out of state, including bridges in Idaho and the Washington University Bridge in Seattle, this is Benson’s first assignment evaluating a bridge in his hometown, and one of the busiest at that.
Although he is happy to be assigned to work on a bridge in Portland, working close to home reminds him of the rapid change the Rose City has undergone.
“We are the only people I went to high school with who can afford to live in Portland,” Benson states, referring to him and his wife Katie Benson.
Yet even they just barely live in Portland.
“We both have really good jobs,” he says (Katie works as a fabrication technician at Intel), “and there was no way we could look for a house in the neighborhoods either of us grew up in.”
Those neighborhoods – Kenton and Alberta – were completely priced out, pushing the Benson’s out to NE 76th.
It’s a story you hear time and time again in Portland. Yet it bears a certain sting knowing that a family with no kids, three advanced degrees and well-paying jobs, still were barely able to afford a home within city limits, let alone anywhere near where they grew up.
And yet despite massive growth almost no one likes, it’s called Bridgetown for a reason, and we love our city. It’s fortunate to have people like Sri Benson evaluating the structures that are so vital to metro area travel. So, next time you cross the Burnside Bridge, remember the unseen PDX people and the vital jobs they do to keep Portland humming.
William Bessette – PDX People Contributor
William Bessette is a published author, poet and longtime journalist who has been covering politics, entertainment, culture and travel for over twelve years. He currently works from his home in the Pacific Northwest profiling restaurants, reviewing local plays and reporting on regional, national and international travel.