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Troutdale may hold key to bridge funds

County officials face deadline for May ballot measure

Troutdale - Some Troutdale City Council members are digging in their heels, but the mayor and Multnomah County officials hope to close a chasm concerning a plan to replace the deteriorating Sellwood Bridge in Southeast Portland.

The outmoded, two-lane span, which can no longer carry TriMet buses and semitrucks over the Willamette River, is the expected linchpin in a campaign to institute a county vehicle registration fee of $15 to $27 annually for the next 20 years.

State law allows counties to enact their own vehicle registration fee as high as the current Oregon fee of $27 a year. The catch? Eleven cities and overlapping jurisdictions - including East County locales Troutdale, Gresham, Wood Village - must OK the deal for Multnomah County to keep all the funds. The law also requires voter approval of any local vehicle registration fee.

As County Chair Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Lonnie Roberts lobby the jurisdictions to allow a May ballot measure for the fee, Troutdale councilors appears the most obvious - and outspoken - obstacle.

Troutdale councilors dealt the plan a blow by turning it down Dec. 11 in a 4-3 vote. After making some requested amendments to its proposed Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA), county leaders lobbied for a reconsideration vote at the Troutdale Council meeting Tuesday, Jan. 8. However, none of the opponents, including David Ripma, Norm Thomas, Barbara Kyle and Robert Canfield, seemed willing to budge.

Canfield was the most outspoken in the belief the IGA offers little direct benefit to East County voters and fails to address the larger problem of regional infrastructure funding. In fact, he called for the Sellwood Bridge, which carries a safety sufficiency rating of 2 out of 100, to be closed immediately.

'To me, the problem we're dealing with is a dysfunctional transportation-funding system,' he said. 'I say close the Sellwood Bridge now before something happens. I'd like to see the county have the courage to close the bridge. Let's stop ignoring the elephant in the room.'

Ripple effect

Responding largely to the Troutdale Council's requests, county officials amended the initial IGA to reflect concerns expressed in the Dec. 11 council meeting. Changes included a 20-year 'sunset' on the registration fee, a provision to cover improvements on all Multnomah County bridges and a commitment to explore other funding possibilities. These include tolling, a gasoline tax increase and the establishment of a regional bridge authority.

Councilors initially opposed to the plan seemed largely unimpressed.

'It's the same proposal,' Ripma said, adding he 'objected' to discussing the topic at that meeting. 'They've just added a few words.'

Wheeler, who secured support from the cities of Portland, Lake Oswego and Wood Village, and gained verbal assurances from other leaders, is confident his ballot measure proposal will go through.

'It's going to get on the ballot; I'm pretty positive about that,' he said. 'It may be a long shot at the polls,' he conceded, 'but after what happened in Minnesota this summer,' referring to the bridge collapse in August that killed nine people. 'I don't think I can sit here and do nothing.'

He labeled calls to immediately close the Sellwood Bridge 'irresponsible.'

'If we close the Sellwood, it will impact all the other (Willamette) bridges,' he said. 'It would lead to severe congestion on other spans. Delivery of goods and services would be impacted.

'This (proposal) is not a decision made in a vacuum.'

Safe for now

Calls for closing the bridge are largely fueled by the perception that the Sellwood Bridge is an imminent danger, reinforced by its '2' rating. The Minnesota bridge that failed had a rating of 50.

Ian Cannon, head of the Multnomah County Bridge Division, said a number of factors influence the rating, including its geometric parameters and how well it serves community and traffic needs.

He maintains the span is safe for the vehicles allowed to cross it. Since June 2004, the bridge has had a posted 10-ton limit, as opposed to the standard legal load of 40 tons. That's enough for a typical United Parcel Service truck or ambulance, but not for TriMet buses and larger trucks. The city asks that fire trucks use alternate routes except in emergencies.

'We look at its capacity to carry the vehicles we're allowing on it,' he said. 'That's how we determine whether it's safe for traffic. If we thought it wasn't safe, we'd close it.'

In addition to the weight-limit restrictions, inspections have increased to every three months. The standard interval is about every two years. With maintenance work scheduled for this year to help, at least in the short run, Cannon agrees closing the bridge now would be the wrong move.

'If it was closed, it would cause 30,000 vehicles to reroute,' he said, 'primarily to the Ross Island Bridge' several miles downstream. 'Closing the bridge would have significant consequences for those using it.

'By taking the heavy loads off it, we're extending every last little bit of life out of the bridge. We could limp along until we had time to do a major rehabilitation or replace the structure.'

Deadline pressure

Time is what concerns county officials. A new bridge could cost $260 million to $400 million or more. The clout of a $100 million local bond, which a $15 car registration fee would allow, is invaluable ammunition for leveraging additional federal funding, Commissioner Roberts says.

He and Wheeler want the vehicle registration fee proposal on the May ballot. That way, the county can qualify for a new round of federal bridge funding expected to be doled out next year. Federal hearings begin this year, and the next round of federal funding isn't expected until 2015.

'We're in a chronological crunch,' Roberts said. 'There's several factors, including how long can we operate the bridge before we have to shut it down. If we want federal support, (the hearings) are once every six years. If we don't get it in by '09, we won't be able to look at it until 2015.'

Although some jurisdictions, including Gresham, have yet to vote on the ballot measure issue, Roberts believes Troutdale is the sole obstacle. Less than unanimous approval among the jurisdictions means funds would be shared by all, leaving too little with which to replace the bridge.

'The only negative out of 12 (jurisdictions) is Troutdale,' he said. 'We have 11 out of 12. If we have to share funds, there's no way to raise the amount. We're dead in the water.'

Taxing issue

For Councilor Norm Thomas, the reasons for opposing the county plans are simple. Like most of his fellow council members, he believes bridge funding is a regional, rather than a county, issue. More directly, he doesn't want his constituents burdened with what amounts to another tax.

'What I'm seeing is, they're asking people in Troutdale to support an additional $54' every two years, including the state car registration fee, he said. 'I don't agree with the (proposed) $27 charge.'

He also takes issue with the fact that approximately 70 percent of Sellwood's traffic comes from Clackamas County vehicles.

'This proposal isn't costing them a dime,' he said. 'We need to play regionally.'

The county is using the bridge's low sufficiency rating to support opposing arguments, he added.

'They're using the rating to argue to get the money. With the same voice, they say, 'Well, the bridge is safe because the load limit is 10 tons.' The bridge needs to be fixed,' he said, 'but you can't use the same argument for two purposes.'

Troutdale Mayor Paul Thalhofer agrees that regional infrastructure funding issue must be addressed, but voted in support of the county's plan. He was not pleased with the way some council members greeted Roberts' presentation last week.

'I didn't expect that kind of a reaction,' Thalhofer said. 'I'm disappointed. They reacted quite angrily, actually, about even the thought of reconsidering it. I thought that was uncalled for.'

Acknowledging, as Wheeler and Roberts have, that the proposed IGA is 'flawed,' he doesn't see how putting the concept before county voters does any harm.

'Sure it's flawed,' Thalhofer said. 'The whole structure's been flawed for years. Fixing it is going to take some time. It's not going to be fixed overnight.

'I've never been afraid of a vote by the people on any issue.'

Thalhofer is hopeful Troutdale councilors will come through for the county's ballot measure proposal in the end.

'If Troutdale is the one holding this up, the pressure (on councilors) is going to be tremendous,' he said. 'I think we ought to be regional players,' he said. 'We have neighbors all around us. We can't just act like we're an island unto ourselves.'

Chairman Wheeler, though well aware of the arguments against his proposal, feels he still has the ear of Troutdale councilors.

'It's not over till it's over,' he said. 'We're still working with Troutdale Council. We're still at the table.

'We owe it to the people to let them vote yes or no,' Wheeler added. 'I fundamentally trust taxpayers on this matter. I think the decision would be theirs.'