Tilikum Crossing: Set Apart by Design

Building a new bridge across the Willamette River is a big deal.

So when it came to designing the first span over the river since the Fremont Bridge opened 42 years ago, we approached every aspect of Tilikum Crossing, Bridge of the People, with an imaginative and intentional eye for the details.

At more than 1,700 feet in length, Tilikum Crossing is the only bridge of its kind in the U.S. The bridge will carry MAX trains, buses, streetcars, cyclists and pedestrians starting Sept. 12, 2015.

From the beginning, the bridge was designed to be different. Carrying transit, bicyclists and pedestrians — but no cars or trucks — meant the structure could be radically streamlined. A bridge built to accommodate private automobiles could easily be twice the width of Tilikum Crossing, because it would need extra lanes, places to pull off and ramps at either end.

Donald MacDonald, a San Francisco architect whose portfolio includes the new San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge, envisioned something special for the small bridge. The cables on most cable-stayed bridges attach at the deck and on the tower, which bears the load. But given Tilikum Crossing’s size, 10 single cables could be threaded through each of its four towers, creating elegant triangular forms that mimic the distant slopes of Mt. Hood.

Artist Errol Beard's rendering of Tilikum Crossing
Artist Errol Beard’s rendering of Tilikum Crossing

Tilikum Crossing’s thin deck keeps its footprint small, though it offers plenty to cyclists and pedestrians. The paths on each side are 14 feet wide — the widest of any Portland bridge — and even larger at the belvederes, where they wrap around the towers.

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You might think Tilikum Crossing’s light, open look would be overshadowed by its neighbors — tall, stately Ross Island Bridge to the south and the Marquam Bridge’s utilitarian decks to the north — but even its presence has been carefully calculated. By day, it’s airy and even (at risk of sounding cheesy) aspiring. Its towers assert themselves without overreaching and it stands comfortably in its place.

At night, though, is when the bridge really stands apart. Artist Doug Hollis and his wife, the late Anna Valentina Murch, along with programmer Morgan Barnard, created an aesthetic lighting program that will control the 178 LEDs that illuminate the bridge. The program pulls data from the USGS river monitor and adjusts the lights’ colors according to the water’s height, speed and temperature.

Even its name figures into Tilikum Crossing’s design. Tilikum is the Chinook Wawa word for “people” — hence Bridge of the People. Historian Chet Orloff, chair of the committee that named the bridge, says the name was selected because it connects our region’s past with the promise of its future.

“Tilikum symbolizes coming together. It conveys connections, in not only the relationships between people, but in the connections we will make as we ride, walk, run and cycle across this beautiful new bridge,” said Orloff.

If the staggering turnout at our recent People’s Preview is any indication, the name fits. That Sunday, more than 40,000 friends, families and neighbors came together and celebrated their bridge. Could there be a more meaningful endorsement of Tilikum Crossing’s unique design?

Bridge facts
  • The first span over the Willamette in the Portland area since the Fremont Bridge in 1973
  • Four-pier cable-stayed bridge type (two piers on land, two in the water at the towers)
  • About 1,720 feet in length
  • Two towers, each 180 feet high
  • 75.5 feet wide (110.5 feet at the towers)
  • About 3.5 miles of cable
  • 14-foot-wide path for cyclists and pedestrians (one on each side)
  • 25 mph max. speed for buses and trains
  • For transit, pedestrians and cyclists only

Learn more: Tilikum Crossing and the MAX Orange Line »

Brian Lum

Brian Lum

I'm TriMet's Web & Social Media Coordinator. I'm here to help tell our story, and to share the interesting things I find along the way. When I'm not here, you'll find me out riding my bike and taking pictures.

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