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Poll shows support for Sellwood Bridge fee

But opponents question results of survey funded by bridge boosters

Proponents of Clackamas County's efforts to help fund a Sellwood Bridge replacement say a poll of 400 likely voters shows 55 percent would vote May 17 in favor of keeping a $5 vehicle registration fee increase.

Opponents suggest that the survey results were skewed by outside interests and point to their survey on the issue last fall that found more than 70 percent opposed.

Political action committee Clackamas County Citizens for Jobs and Safety released the poll results this month, about three months after the Board of County Commissioners unanimously passed an ordinance to levy the fee increase to fund a new bridge. An ensuing signature campaign was eventually successful in referring the ordinance to a countywide vote.

'I wasn't entirely surprised by the results, but it was very heartening to see that level of support for a public safety measure,' Clackamas County Commission Chair Charlotte Lehan said of the recent poll.

Lehan added that she's working with Multnomah County and the city of Portland to get the bridge replacement cost down to $280 million, which she believes would provide a significant influx of work for Clackamas County contractors and suppliers. The bridge is about one mile north of the county line.

Public records show that trade unions, design companies, consultants and development companies from other counties have backed the fee-increase campaign, including $2,500 from CenterCal, the Tigard-based company that launched an urban renewal debate with a shopping mall proposal for Oregon City. Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen also donated $2,500 through his campaign committee, and with $5,000, the statewide governmental employees union Oregon AFSCME has been the largest contributor during the first two months of the campaign launched Jan. 11.

The PAC contracted Portland-based Grove Insight to conduct the survey for $17,920; no public money was used. But fee opponents have used outside funding sources as a way to discredit Clackamas County Citizens for Jobs and Safety.

'They raised all this money and spent it on a poll, which tells me they were looking for some numbers to support their rather irrational claims, when they don't have local funding sources,' said former Oregon City Commissioner Dan Holladay, one of the chief petitioners to refer the ordinance to the ballot.

Clackamas County Commissioner Jim Bernard, who contributed $500 to the building campaign, argued that that the fact that campaign money is coming from Multnomah County is a small issue.

'Any job we create in Clackamas County has a ripple effect across the economy, so anyone who supports job growth would look to the Sellwood Bridge as one of those mechanisms to do that,' Bernard said.

Fee opponents also argue the issue is not about the safety or economy of the bridge, but about the precedent for inter-county funding transactions.

'This is a jurisdictional issue about the legality of forcing one county to pay for the infrastructure within another county,' Tom Eskridge, the other chief petitioner against the fee, wrote via e-mail.

Clackamas County commissioners see the bridge as a statewide partnership. Taxpayers throughout Oregon pay through the Department of Transportation for the two Oregon City bridges over the Willamette River, which are located almost 10 miles south of Sellwood.

'Generally speaking, working together is better than working in your own little silo, because you're able to find more efficiencies and make all of the region's projects better in the end,' Lehan said.

Pollsters also attempted to gauge how much voters could be swayed by arguments. After respondents were given seven statements on behalf of opponents and eight for supporters, they moved only one percentage point against the fee.

Chris Edmonds, political director for the campaign to pass the fee, said that details about specific questions that were asked are proprietary information and not subject to public scrutiny. He will be emphasizing the bridge's structural deficiencies in his argument for the voter's pamphlet.

'The longer we delay the more likely it will be that we'll have to close the bridge, which would be a significant blow to the local economy,' Edmonds said.

Regionally, the survey found proponents are thickest in the Lake Oswego region (68 percent yes, 18 percent no), though those living in the 14 ZIP codes farthest from the bridge showed a single digit margin in support (47 percent yes, 42 percent no).

Edmonds said that the respondents were geographically and politically proportional to Clackamas County, but added that the metrics supporting those claims also wouldn't be released to the public.

County Commissioner Paul Savas wasn't sure how he would have voted if he were on the commission at the time that the ordinance was passed, but he supported anything that would create a more public process on the issue.

'Due to all the different areas that bring in those shades of grey, I do think that referring the ordinance to voters is a really good thing to do,' Savas said.

The poll showed Democrats in support of keeping the $5 fee 64 percent versus 28 percent, Independents 54 percent versus 28 percent and Republicans 46 percent versus 41 percent.

The Sellwood Bridge will be featured in Transportation for America report due out this week on Oregon's 'structurally deficient' bridges.