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Wheeler makes case for bridge funds

Gresham councilors delay vote to mull over registration fee

Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler may think a vehicle registration fee to pay for $300 million in repairs to Sellwood Bridge is a bad idea. But it's his idea, and he spent the last two weeks hustling around East County, pitching it to local city officials.

'It's a ridiculous way to try to fund critical infrastructure,' Wheeler told Gresham City Council on Tuesday, Dec. 18. 'But those are the cards I'm dealt.'

Wheeler's hand of cards includes the deteriorating Sellwood Bridge in South Portland, a 20-year capital maintenance backlog that will include $450 million for bridges alone, and an 'accident of history,' as he called it, that makes Multnomah County solely responsible for regional assets such as six Willamette River bridges.

All of this explains the urgency and exasperation that Wheeler displayed throughout his presentation in Gresham.

The condition of Sellwood Bridge - the busiest two-lane span in Oregon with more than 30,000 daily crossings - was the purpose of Wheeler's visit. The bridge was built with recycled parts, some of which are more than 100 years old, and has a federal adequacy rating of 2 out of 100. By comparison, the Minnesota bridge that collapsed in August had a rating of 50. The county closely monitors the Sellwood Bridge's deficiencies, and heavy vehicles such as trucks and busses are banned.

But the bridge is a 'poster-child,' Wheeler explained, for the county's transportation morass.

In order to add a $27 county vehicle registration fee, state law requires the county to reach agreements with overlapping jurisdictions, including Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village. If the county manages to persuade all jurisdictions, the proposal goes before voters on the May ballot. If approved, the new revenue would, the county hopes, combine with matching federal dollars to pay for the bridge.

The current state fee of $27 is fourth lowest in the nation, according to a 2006 study by the Idaho Transportation Depart-ment. The new county fee would bring the total annual fee to $54.

Gresham officials said they need time to mull it over and did not set a date for a vote, although Gresham Mayor Shane T. Bemis assured Wheeler they will work through it as quickly as possible.

In the previous week, Wood Village approved the measure, while Troutdale narrowly rejected it, asking Wheeler for revisions. On Wednesday, Dec. 19, Fairview put off a vote but showed support for the proposal.

The proposal is controversial because it burdens Multnomah County citizens alone for a region-wide asset. Multnomah County is the sole custodian of six bridges that cross the Willamette River, which has contributed to the capital maintenance backlog.

According to a study conducted by Metro in 1994, 70 percent of trips across the bridge either originated or ended in Clackamas County, and Michael Pullen, Multnomah county spokesman, said the county has verified that number still holds up.

'I would assume Lake Oswego is the other 30 percent,' Councilor Paul Warr-King quipped at the Gresham meeting.

The proposal is especially controversial in East County, where residents are less likely to use the bridge. The council's feedback to Wheeler steered toward finding more equitable methods of financing repairs, spread over all the region's jurisdictions.

Wheeler agreed, and said bluntly that the county will never be able to cover its transportation maintenance costs. He called for the creation of a regional bridge authority 'to put our local bridges in the hands of the region where they belong.'

'They were planned that way, they should be funded that way, too,' Wheeler said. 'But that does not solve my short-term problem. My short-term problem remains the Sellwood Bridge.'

Wheeler acknowledged the proposal is a tough sell in East County, but that it would be even harder to ask residents in Washington and Clackamas counties - even if they use the bridge more often.

The purpose of getting the proposal on the May ballot is to put the issue in front of federal lawmakers before transportation funds are reauthorized in 2009. Wheeler said the county's chances of getting a federal match is greatly increased if local funds are secured ahead of time. On the other hand, if the county misses the next cycle, the earliest that federal dollars may be available is 2015.

'I don't think the Sellwood Bridge will stand until 2015, to tell you the truth,' said Commissioner Lonnie Roberts, who joined Wheeler in the presentation.

Councilor Carol Nielsen-Hood asked Wheeler what happens to the new revenue if it is not matched at the federal level. Wheeler said it would likely be redirected toward other bridge projects.

'But that would be a worst-case scenario, because I want you to understand that if we raise $100 million for the Sellwood Bridge, and don't spend it on the Sellwood Bridge, the Sellwood Bridge is done,' Wheeler said, emphasizing the need to explain a backup plan to voters. 'I hope you understand what a disaster that would be.'

Wheeler sought to cast the bridge in a larger context of decades of political neglect of transportation issues. When Councilor Mike Bennett questioned why the state has not stepped in to offer a solution for such a critical piece of infrastructure, such as tolling, which the county cannot do on its own, Wheeler did not mince words.

'There's been a lack of spine,' Wheeler said. 'Transportation infrastructure is not sexy. It doesn't create votes. It just upsets people.'

Wheeler also pointedly called on the council to do its part in working for a solution to the long-term problem, which is political. If local governments want to share the county's burden through a regional authority, Wheeler said, they need to use their bully pulpits.

'I really believe, fundamentally, this isn't just a transportation issue. It's a public-safety issue,' Wheeler said. 'This is the best proposal I could think of.'