The decaying condition of the Sellwood Bridge is a regional problem of such significance and urgency that no proposed solution can be dismissed out of hand.
We recognize that Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler's proposal to create a countywide vehicle-registration fee to raise money for the bridge has its flaws.
However, any conversation about addressing the Sellwood Bridge crisis should start not with talk of the potential obstacles in Wheeler's plan, but with an agreement that the span is unsafe, is of regional importance and is in dire need of timely replacement.
The condition of the Sellwood Bridge is a public-safety issue for tens of thousands of people who daily depend on the bridge, as well as an economic matter for commuters and freight haulers.
Many of those people hail from Lake Oswego, a Clackamas County city that would be unaffected by the Wheeler plan.
By pushing forward what is certain to be a controversial bridge-funding plan, Wheeler appropriately is elevating awareness of the specific problems with the Sellwood Bridge.
But, just as important, he calls attention to the fact that all Willamette River bridges owned by Multnomah County are aging and poorly funded and present an issue beyond the scope of any one jurisdiction.
Bridges are a regional asset
By a fluke of geography and history, Multnomah County residents may be financially responsible for most of the bridges crossing the Willamette.
But these bridges don't benefit only the people living in Multnomah County.
They are used each day by hundreds of thousands of people from throughout the region. And each day, they help carry a significant share of the region's commerce.
While the Sellwood Bridge is in the worst shape, many of the county's bridges require deferred maintenance at a cost that far exceeds the capabilities of Multnomah County alone.
Given their importance, the burden of managing, maintaining and - when necessary - replacing the bridges should be borne regionally and not placed solely on the backs of Multnomah County taxpayers, vehicle owners or businesses.
Wheeler recognizes the bridges' regional nature. That's why he proposes creating a regional bridge authority that ultimately would be responsible for Willamette River bridges.
We agree such an authority should be fully explored as a long-term solution. A good opportunity to examine this is coming up as three task forces created by Gov. Ted Kulongoski study Oregon's vast transportation needs.
The governor has asked three questions: How should the transportation system be governed? How should it be funded? And what is the best way to communicate with the public about transportation?
Delaying Sellwood not an option
We hope the governor's committees will deliver both immediate and long-term recommendations that begin to address Oregon's long-neglected transportation needs. But the governor's effort is focused on developing strategies to present to the Legislature in 2009.
For a variety of reasons - including the congressional funding cycle and the importance of dealing soon with the issue of public safety - the Sellwood Bridge project needs to move quickly.
Up to $100 million in matching local funds are needed to have any hope of securing federal or state money for a 2012 bridge project.
Many people will have reason to object to Wheeler's proposed county vehicle-registration fee.
But to have an honest discussion about the Sellwood Bridge, those objections must be accompanied with realistic alternative ideas for replacing a bridge that gets a failing score of 2 on a federal bridge-adequacy rating scale of 1 to 100.