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New vehicle fee may be hard to sell

Troutdale rejects idea for bridge cash, but campaign continues
by: , Sauvie Island Bridge (being replaced)

Despite some potholes along the way, Multnomah County leaders are moving swiftly to put a funding measure on the May ballot that would pay to replace the aging Sellwood Bridge. The outmoded and deteriorating bridge, which no longer can handle TriMet buses and semitrucks, is the expected poster child in a campaign to institute a new local vehicle registration fee of $15 to $27 a year for the next 20 years. County officials say that if they decide to propose a $27 per year fee, money could be used to help pay for improvements to other county bridges in addition to the Sellwood; a $15 per year fee probably would pay only for a new Sellwood Bridge. “It’s going to get on the ballot; I’m pretty positive about that,” Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler said of the vehicle registration fee. It may be a long shot at the polls, he conceded, “but after what happened in Minnesota this summer, I don’t think I can sit here and do nothing.” There’s little argument that the 82-year-old Sellwood Bridge is inadequate. Outside engineers assigned the bridge a sufficiency rating of 2 on a scale of 1 to 100. The federal government will consider replacement funds for bridges that score below 50. But many people in the county don’t use the bridge, and some residents are balking at the higher vehicle registration fee, which would be in addition to the state fee already in place. State law enables counties to enact their own vehicle registration fee as high as the state fee, currently $27 a year. The catch: 11 cities and overlapping jurisdictions must OK the deal for Multnomah County to keep all the funds. Otherwise, the county would be obligated to share as much as 40 percent of the money with cities. The law also requires voter approval of any local vehicle registration fee. Troutdale city councilors dealt a blow to Wheeler’s plan by turning it down Dec. 11 in a 4-3 vote. County leaders lobbied for a reconsideration vote at Troutdale’s City Council meeting Tuesday, but none of the opponents were willing to budge. What’s in it for Troutdale? Troutdale city Councilor Barbara Kyle, considered the most sympathetic of the four no votes, said she doesn’t see much in the proposal for east Multnomah County residents. “I’m a Realtor, and it’s probably been five years since I’ve been across that bridge,” she said. Kyle and some of her colleagues are calling for some of the money to be spent in their end of the county. But there currently is no Plan B to retool the proposal and dedicate some money to east county projects, said Rhys Scholes, Wheeler’s spokesman. Wheeler and other county officials have stressed the need for all 11 local governments to approve the plan before it can go on the ballot. But county officials are moving ahead without Troutdale, for now. Wheeler has secured support from the city of Portland, Lake Oswego and Wood Village, and gained verbal assurances from other leaders. Officials at the Oregon Department of Transportation said state law doesn’t give a city like Troutdale the power to veto a registration fee like the one Wheeler is proposing, called a local-option vehicle registration fee. But Troutdale would be eligible to keep its share of the money raised, according to ODOT spokesman Patrick Cooney. “That is the way we interpret that statute,” he said. It’s unclear how the other jurisdictions would respond if Troutdale gets to keep its share of the money raised. “It’s our expectation that we go back to Troutdale after some of the other jurisdictions have acted,” Scholes said. “If we don’t get the support of the jurisdictions, the board (of county commissioners) will reconsider what to do.” The ballot measure would permit the money to be spent on any of the county’s six Willamette River bridges, though the Sellwood Bridge is the priority. Wheeler said it would take a $15 local vehicle registration fee to raise $100 million for the Sellwood Bridge, which would be used to leverage matching money from federal, state and regional sources. A new bridge could cost $260 million to $400 million or more. Wheeler said the vehicle registration fee isn’t ideal, but he concluded it’s his only option to take care of a problem that has festered for decades. Wheeler said he would prefer a regional authority to pay for the bridges, since the county’s six bridges are used by people from throughout the Portland area. But the notion of a regional bridge authority isn’t catching on, he said. Turning the Sellwood into a toll bridge would require a change in the state law, and county officials said it would cause traffic disruptions as people seek alternate routes to avoid the toll. Wheeler wants the vehicle registration fee proposal on the May ballot so the county can qualify for a new round of federal bridge funding expected to be doled out next year. Federal hearings begin this year. The next round of federal funding isn’t expected until 2015. An October poll by Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall Inc. showed that the vehicle registration fee increase had the support of about 56 percent of county voters. But Wheeler said it would require a professionally managed campaign to pass the measure, due to expected opposition. Some opponents may rise up AAA Oregon/Idaho has no position on the vehicle registration fee proposal, said John Porter, the group’s president and chief executive officer. His group helped kill a 2007 bill in the Legislature that would have relieved counties from needing voter approval for such fees. But the auto club is fine with the idea of taking it before voters, Porter said. Two other groups with less clout than the auto club may mount an opposition campaign. “There’s a chance we may come in and try to fight it,” said Greg Remensperger, executive vice president of the Oregon Automobile Dealers Association. Jason Williams, executive director of Taxpayer Association of Oregon, said area residents face a “triple tax hit” from the proposed city road-maintenance fee, the county vehicle-registration fee, and talk of a proposed state gas tax increase before the 2009 Legislature. Williams said the county would have the money if drivers got more consideration than mass-transit users and bicyclists. “They’ve been building train after train and then they complain to taxpayers they don’t have enough to fix potholes,” he said. Sellwood’s capacity reduced The Sellwood Bridge’s low sufficiency rating is a reflection of safety conditions and its limited ability to serve various vehicles and other users. It has inadequate approaches, narrow lanes, no shoulders, and poor access for pedestrians and bicyclists, said Mike Pullen, county spokesman for transportation issues. To keep the bridge safe for travel, the county reduced the weight limit from 40 tons to 32 tons in 1985. The weight limit was reduced to 10 tons in June 2004, Pullen said. That’s enough for a typical United Parcel Service truck or ambulance, but not for TriMet buses and larger trucks. The city asks that firetrucks use alternate routes except in emergencies. Wheeler said he recognizes that his bridge-funding plan, along with a potential proposal to raise money for public safety, is giving him a “reputation of Mr. Tax and Spend.” But Wheeler, starting only his second year in elective office, said he has concluded the Sellwood Bridge should have been replaced long ago. “He’s taking the bull by the horns,” said Tom Mack, chief of staff to county Commissioner Lonnie Roberts. “Do I think he might get skewered by the bull? Maybe.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.