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Daily bridge commute has an ominous side

Every weekday when I jump in the car for my morning commute to the newsroom in Lake Oswego, I make a series of choices.

Am I in the mood for talking head radioing, Dennis Miller, Bill O'Reilly perhaps, or do I need the pick-me-up of some music?

Should I shell out a little extra dough for a Stumptown coffee or go with Starbucks?

Another choice I make from my origin of the Belmont neighborhood in Southeast Portland is which bridge do I take to get to work - the Hawthorne, Morrison or Sellwood being the usual options.

One afternoon recently, after last week's bridge collapse during rush hour in Minneapolis, I found myself stuck in a line of cars on the venerable Sellwood Bridge.

Great view of downtown, sure.

But that's not what was running through my mind. First, I thought of the horror that must have gone through the minds of the commuters, some headed to a Twins game at the Metrodome, others home from work, when the span of roadway they had entrusted to get them there safely began to buckle.

I couldn't imagine.

And then this crossed my mind.

The Sellwood Bridge is slated for a serious makeover, most likely in the form of a $230 million replacement. It's the lowest-rated bridge in the metro area, which happens to include a host of other dilapidated bridges. A recent Portland Tribune editorial said in the river-divided region of Multnomah County alone, the estimated deferred maintenance totals $320 million.

And the total amount of unmet transportation improvements is a paltry $422 million.

At this point, while idling about halfway across the two-lane bridge, the Willamette chugging by below, when these numbers flash in my eyes, I'm not feeling very good about my situation.

And I realized something. I may choose how my morning goes, which coffee I buy, what radio station I tune to. But the choice of whether to risk my life doesn't rest in my hands.

Now I know, there are a million ways to die. And walking down the sidewalk in your neighborhood - as we here in West Linn were reminded of recently - can even result in an early exit.

But, in living where we do, a section of the country that makes it almost impossible to drive 10 miles without spanning a bridge, should this be part of our daily regimen of worrying?

Last time I checked, this wasn't a third-world country.

But we've all been awakened to the fact that our state and local governments - with the feds not getting a pass either - have forgotten about our bridges.

About 77,000 bridges nationwide have been classified as 'structurally deficient,' according to a report in the Washington Post.

The Minneapolis bridge carrying eight lanes of traffic on Interstate 35W was one of them.

And so is the Sellwood.

Now, I completely admit, this is a reactionary column. Unfortunately, these horrible events seem to be one of the only ways to spur change. See, the Hurricane Katrina example.

The Oregon Legislature failed to make transportation funding a priority in the 2007 session but says it will be in the future. Metro says is looking at the possibility of a regional transportation funding measure.

But those options, if they see the light of day, don't promise action for at least three more years.

So I have to ask myself, why am I stuck on the Sellwood Bridge knowing all this? Why should anyone be?

And taking into account the Minneapolis tragedy, aren't all of us who choose to drive on bridges, that engineers determine aren't sound to hold us, put in harm's way unnecessarily?

If I can help it, I'll avoid the Sellwood Bridge from now on. It may be reactionary. I drove off just fine that afternoon and went on with my day, just like the thousands of other drivers who crossed it that day.

But then again, next time I'm stuck on the Morrison I'll be thinking the same thing. Or when I'm on the Hawthorne.

Just one more thing to worry about, I guess.

Dan Itel is the editor of the West Linn Tidings, which is a sister newspaper of the Lake Oswego Review and shares the same newsroom in Lake Oswego.