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Sellwood Bridge: Failure to fix will lead to closure, congestion

The recent earthquake in Japan reminds us of the importance of having safe roads and bridges. On Wednesday, Transportation for America released a well-timed, independent report on the structural integrity of Oregon's bridges. An entire page of this report is devoted to the Sellwood Bridge, and confirms what we have already known for so long: Our bridge is in very bad shape, and poses a significant danger to the thousands of Clackamas County residents who use it every day.

As it is, the Sellwood Bridge would not be able to withstand even a moderate earthquake, receiving a safety rating of two on a scale of zero to 100. This score is much lower than the highway bridge that collapsed in Minnesota. These structural deficiencies are largely the result of poor planning and a lack of funding when the bridge was built 80 years ago. As a result, it has inadequate structural supports, is not anchored into bedrock, and indications are that it is becoming vulnerable to a landslide.

While the bridge is clearly unsafe, more than 30,000 people, many of them Clackamas County residents, rely on it every single day. And despite the bridge's vulnerability, it has become a vital transportation and economic link - it's the only Willamette River crossing for 12 miles in one of the most heavily populated regions of our state. In order to protect our families and protect our economy, things have to change.

Last year, Clackamas County participated in a regional planning process to address this critical public safety issue. It was decided that the safest and most cost-effective solution is to replace it with a modern, earthquake-safe bridge. As part of this decision, Clackamas County agreed to fund 7 percent of the total project cost through a $5 annual vehicle registration fee - despite the fact that 70% of all the traffic on the bridge begins or ends in Clackamas County. On May 17, we will have the opportunity to approve this action through a 'yes' vote on measure 3-372.

Our time to act is limited-if the bridge is not replaced, it will have to be shut down within eight years. This will lead to increased congestion and wait times on alternate routes including I-205, Highway 43 and McLoughlin Boulevard. The Sellwood Bridge is already weight-limited, forcing delivery trucks and emergency vehicles to take longer, slower routes. Its complete closure would further hurt the hundreds of Clackamas County businesses and families who depend on it.

Failure to act responsibly now will endanger lives and livelihoods, and it will force us to miss out on the thousands of good-paying construction jobs the project will create. That's why business groups across Clackamas County support this effort, including the North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce, the Clackamas County Economic Development Commission, and the Clackamas County Business Alliance.

People in Minnesota ignored warnings that one of their highway bridges was structurally unsound and the result was a tragic bridge collapse that cost lives and scarred a community. We shouldn't repeat the same mistake. Supporting this project is sensible, responsible, and non-partisan. To protect the safety of our families and neighbors, I urge a 'yes' vote on ballot measure 3-372.

Charlotte Lehan is chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners.