One of Portland’s iconic old bridges could be headed for big changes — eventually. TriMet is wary of spending millions to repair its aging tracks on the Steel Bridge, which may be reaching the end of its lifespan.

The Steel Bridge is 106 years old and unusual for the number of agencies that use it. Its two black lattice towers lift for ships; Union Pacific — which owns the bridge — has trains rumble along its lower deck; and its upper deck is used by buses, cars and light-rail trains.

Speaking at TriMet’s monthly meeting, general manager Doug Kelsey called it a strategic crossing, especially after an earthquake.

“Part of the options review is, in fact do you replace the bridge? Do you put a bridge further down? Or do you at some point, do you go underground?” Kelsey said. “The challenge is always going to come down to money.”

The Steel Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

The Steel Bridge in Portland, Oregon.

Alan Sylvestre/OPB

TriMet is expected to send a bond to voters in a couple of years to pay for a new light-rail line through southwest Portland. A new bridge might be included in that bond.

But a statement from TriMet said any decision on its use of the Steel Bridge is a long way off.

“Years/decades down the road, we hope to have more MAX service and the Steel Bridge, which is already more than 100 years old and not up to modern day earthquake standards, may no longer be an option for us,” the agency said. 

“Due to the age of the bridge, the lifts and the fact that 611 MAX trains move across the trackway on the bridge every weekday, our trackway is in need of repairs. We are working to make major improvements in the coming years so our trains and MAX system can continue to run across the bridge. As those plans come together, we will be communicating to riders, the community and the media about those plans.”

Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect future plans for the aging Steel Bridge, and Union Pacific’s ownership of the bridge.