Some spans are not ready for an earthquake - or even a garbage truck
by: L.E. Baskow, An expansion joint (left) on the Capitol Highway bridge over Southwest Barbur Boulevard does not meet current earthquake standards.

Add dozens of aging bridges to the hundreds of miles of deteriorating streets and scores of dangerous intersections competing for limited city transportation repair funds.

City Commissioner Sam Adams, who is in charge of the Portland Office of Transportation, is compiling a list of city-owned bridges in need of immediate repair. He plans to use the information - along with data on other infrastructure problems - to lobby the City Council and 2007 Oregon Legislature for more funds to upgrade the ailing street system.

'We've got dozens of bridges that could collapse right now or liquefy during an earthquake,' Adams said. 'Add that to the 600-mile backlog of streets needing repairs and the intersections where people are dying in accidents on a regular basis, and we've got real needs that have to be addressed.'

Fixing all these problems will cost hundreds of millions of dollars. But, according to Adams, the city only expects to have about $14 million in dedicated street maintenance funds in next year's budget. That money comes primarily from the state gasoline tax, which has not increased since 1993, despite inflation-driven repair cost increases.

Because of the growing gap between repair needs and available funds, Adams has begun talking to other council members and Portland-area legislators about new sources of money for street maintenance.

He is asking the council for $5.2 million of the available $19 million in one-time funds from higher-than-expected business income tax and utility franchise fee collections. And Adams has begun talking about other cities working with Portland to submit a statewide package of needed street repairs to the legislative session that begins next January.

'If we don't do something now, the problems are only going to get worse,' he said.

But Adams also is facing accusations that the transportation office he oversees is not currently spending its repair funds as effectively as possible. Four city audits released this year question the management of the office's Bureau of Maintenance. Among other things, the audits allege that the bureau has purchased asphalt that does not meet its standards and paid unauthorized overtime to supervisors.

'If we can't prove we are spending our money as efficiently as possible, the public will never support giving us more repair money,' said Adams, who has promised to enact all audit recommendations within 60 days.

Although not as prominent as the state and county bridges spanning the Willamette River, Portland owns 157 bridges that are essential to the city's transportation system.

Some span such natural barriers as Sullivan Gulch in Northeast Portland. Others cross man-made obstacles, including Interstate 405 on the western edge of downtown. Still others traverse the hilly terrain in Northwest and Southwest neighborhoods.

Some of the bridges have already exceeded the 75-year life span that designers recommend for such structures. Dozens have city-imposed weight restrictions because they cannot handle garbage trucks, cement mixers and other large vehicles.

A 1994 seismic study conducted by the CH2M Hill engineering firm identified many that would collapse in a major earthquake, including ones that would block such major transportation corridors as the Banfield Expressway.

Despite these problems, the city does not have a dedicated funding source for maintaining the bridges. Instead, they must compete with all other streets for gas tax revenues provided by the state that are set aside for such repairs.

Although the amount Portland receives has grown slightly over the past 10 years - from $11.3 million in fiscal year 1995-96 to an estimated $14 million next fiscal year - repair costs are increasing much faster because of inflation, including the cost of oil used to make asphalt.

According to a July 2006 city auditor's audit, the backlog of streets needing repair has increased from 439 miles in 1991 to 597 miles in 2005. After adjusting for inflation, the estimated cost to make all identified repairs in the backlog has more than doubled since 1994, growing from $44.8 million to $92.9 million.

This does not include the cost of fixing all bridges needing repairs. The most recent inventory of city bridges recommended that 36 of them be replaced or repaired. It pegged the cost at more than $132 million.

Beyond that, Adams also believes the city needs to tackle 40 intersections identified as dangerous in a recent intersection safety analysis done by the city transportation office.

Many are along such busy thoroughfares as 82nd and 122nd avenues on the east side. According to the analysis, accidents at these intersections could be significantly reduced with median islands, signal changes, red-light cameras, and pedestrian and bicycle improvements. But the cost of all such improvements is estimated at more than $3.5 million.

In recent years, the city was able to finance some bridge improvements through a state grant program. The program will expire later this year, leaving the city to rely on its gas tax revenues again.

The council was scheduled to begin discussing budget issues at a Monday retreat. Votes on this year's budget additions are still weeks away, while hearings for next year's budget will not begin for several months.

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