Finding some money for the Sellwood Bridge

It was around 1980 that the owner of the Sellwood Bridge, Multnomah County, began to worry about the deterioration of the bridge, and to realize it needed either a major rebuild or replacement.

Time has passed. It's close to a third of a century later, and this bridge is clearly in need of replacement.

It was built in the mid-1920's as the third of three bridges; the funding provided was to pay for all three. The first one built was the Burnside Bridge - a rebuild of the bridge there previously. It cost more than expected but remains a pretty solid bridge.

The second of the three bridges built with these funds was the Ross Island Bridge. It's still a pretty solid bridge, and recently had some repair and resurfacing done.

The third bridge was the Sellwood, and alas, by the time its construction started, there wasn't enough money left in the budget to build it properly. Some pieces of the original Burnside Bridge were used in its construction, and although it was pretty sturdy in its day, it has a unique problem - its west end was built on an ancient landslide, which until the 1980's was not recognized. And, it still creeps along, pushing eastward on the west end of the bridge.

So, the west end ramp of the bridge has been repaired and shortened; cracks in the concrete girders have been splinted, and the support pillars on the west bank no longer stand vertical, although they are still holding up the bridge satisfactorily.

Some people tell THE BEE they are afraid to drive across the Sellwood Bridge now; but with its 10 ton per vehicle weight limit, and frequent inspections, it remains safe to use for vehicles able to meet the weight limit. Unfortunately, that means that TriMet buses and the city's fire trucks are prohibited from using the bridge - but commuters can, and it is still the most heavily used bridge, per lane, each weekday, in the entire State of Oregon.

Because what the bridge will need is so expensive, the County must have some help paying for it. And for the last two years, the County has been going through an elaborate and 'started from scratch' re-ascertainment of what the bridge needs and how it is to be done, using volunteer citizens committees and engineering studies, in order to meet federal guidelines for federal money to help with the project.

A year was spent on design and alignment options for a new bridge, and then the assignment for the volunteers turned to how the County would come up with its part of the money if the feds are going to come up with the rest. That has caused some problems.

What's new

Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler would like to see a new $48 county vehicle registration fee, on top of the state fee, to generate the needed funds for the Sellwood Bridge, as well as repairs for other county bridges. Although three quarters of the jurisdictions in the county have okayed the idea, Troutdale, Gresham, and Maywood Park voiced objections, and Wheeler says he has bagged that idea since the approval is not unanimous.

That's a problem. It appears that any fundraising idea for the county bridges is not going to get by Maywood Park, a teeny weeny little town surrounded by Portland in the Parkrose area. Since many Clackamas County commuters use the Sellwood and other Multnomah County bridges, but Clackamas County has never been able to get consensus on where in its own county to build an additional bridge, there is sentiment to find a way for Clackamas County to participate in this effort, but that county says it is out of money even to fix its own rights of way.

We think majority approval of the necessary jurisdictions should be all that is needed for the registration fee proposal to go forward. This way, those who drive vehicles would be paying to maintain the bridges, which to us seems pretty fair.

What next

However, the county has for now dropped the idea of putting this funding idea on the ballot. What, then, is left? Another thirty years of driving on a bridge which rates a 2 out of 100 on the federal bridge sufficiency scale?

THE BEE suggests that if this satisfactory funding proposal founders, the alternative needs to be something which has been suggested repeatedly by local residents, and which has the support of bridge construction traditions around the country from the beginning - a toll on the Sellwood Bridge.

We are informed that the State of Oregon prohibits the County from placing tolls on bridges, although perhaps not the City from doing so. If this is true, but a local jurisdiction wants to toll ITS OWN bridges in order to raise the funds to maintain them, then it is hard to see why the State Legislature would stonewall permitting it. Such enactment could be legislatively limited to Multnomah County if rural legislators want to avoid the possibility of tolls in their areas.

It is common for new bridges in this country to be paid for by a toll, which is retired when the bridge is fully paid for. This idea has been dropped as a 'nonstarter' from the beginning by the County, based on polls 'which show practically no support for it'. However, the bridge needs to be replaced, and this way not only would those who use it pay for its replacement (which should resolve the misgivings of Gresham, Troutdale, and little Maywood Park), but it would also mean that commuters from Clackamas County would either pay their share or use some other bridge.

Those changing bridges to avoid the toll will find themselves mired in traffic, and if tolls are use to finance all County Bridge repairs, it will be hard to avoid it. Probably tolls will cost commuters more money than the proposed registration fee increase. But it seems the only fair alternative. Popular or not, that is the second best funding source, we think.

Our own preference would be the registration fee solution. But since for now that is not being pursued by Multnomah County, then we suggest earnestly that the bridge toll idea be adopted as the only viable alternative.

And, let's get on with replacing the Sellwood Bridge.