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County looks to close gap between funding and needs in road repairs

Advisory vote on May ballot not binding

Clackamas County voters will advise commissioners May 17 whether to pursue a local source of money to pay for road repairs.

Measure 3-478 is advisory only, and it does not specify a source.

If voters say yes, commissioners have promised to return to the Nov. 8 general election with a specific source — most likely a vehicle registration fee tacked onto the statewide amount — set a time limit for the fee and lay out 47 projects that the money would pay for.

Proceeds would be split 60-40 with the cities.

If voters say no, Chairman John Ludlow said he thinks the board will suspend further discussion of the issue for a year.

Virtually all of the 10 candidates for three positions on the county board support some form of local support to add to the county’s shares of state fuel taxes, state weight-mile taxes paid by trucks, and the state vehicle registration fee that motorists pay every other year.

The exception is Steve Bates of Boring, one of two challengers to Commissioner Martha Schrader for Position 3, who has hedged his support contingent on using the money only for paving and making sure that all currently available money goes to paving.

But Schrader and other candidates said road maintenance involves more than just laying asphalt.

The current county budget sets aside $1 million more for road work that commissioners managed to scrape up in addition to fuel and vehicle fees — which under state law must be used for road work — and excluding property taxes that cannot be spent on such work. But officials said it was a one-time infusion from administrative costs that cannot be repeated.

Federal payments from timber sales used to produce some money for county roads, but that money has disappeared as payments have been reduced.

As part of an every-other-year survey conducted for the county on a broad range of issues, support for a hypothetical local vehicle registration fee outweighed opposition, 52 percent to 43 percent. But the pollster said that support was soft — 23 percent of the sample strongly in favor and 29 percent somewhat — while 32 percent were strongly against a fee.

However, transportation and related issues rose to the top of the concerns voiced by the 400 in the sample — and the share of those who believe county roads are in fair or poor condition rose from 29 percent two years ago to 36 percent today.

Getting worse

What is not in dispute is that 54 percent of the 1,400 miles of roads maintained by the county are rated in fair or poor condition — and that share will rise to 79 percent by 2024 if nothing is done.

The county now reports a gap of $17 million annually between available money and projected maintenance — and that if nothing is done to reduce it, it will cost more than $500 million in the future to rebuild the roads. The current maintenance backlog is estimated at $265 million.

Barbara Cartmill, the county director of transportation and development, said looks are deceiving — that a road surface does not have to show visible cracks to be in fair or poor condition.

“Brand-new pavement — pavement in excellent condition — begins to deteriorate within two years,” she told commissioners during their discussion preceding Measure 3-478. “It needs ongoing maintenance to keep it in excellent or good condition.

“Every single year a road deteriorates, it cost exponentially (more) to bring it back. Roads that have deteriorated to the point where people actually see a poor condition cost 10 times more reconstruct than it would have to provide maintenance.

“What is happening in Portland is spot-on relevant to this situation.”

The Portland City Council has put a 10-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax on the May 17 ballot. If approved, that tax will expire in four years.

Clackamas County voters rejected attempts in 2004 and 2007 to approve a local source.

They also voted in 2011 to overturn a $5 annual vehicle registration fee approved that commissioners approved to raise $22 million for a replacement for the Sellwood Bridge, which is nearby in Multnomah County. The replacement bridge, financed partly by a $19 annual registration fee imposed by the Multnomah County board, opened a couple of months ago.

Voters have rejected local registration fees in Washington and Lane counties in the past couple of years.

What’s next

If Measure 3-478 passes, commissioners have said the most likely option is an annual vehicle registration fee of $25 tacked onto the statewide fee of $43. Motorists pay the fee every other year.

Under state law, the county would share 40 percent of the proceeds with cities, which also must use their share for street work.

Commissioners have discussed attaching a limit of seven years to the fee, which would raise an estimated $35 million over the period for 47 specific county projects — starting with work on 13.3 miles of Beavercreek Road.

The projects add up to $32.3 million; the rest would go toward safety improvements.

Though the $5 million the fee would generate annually is well short of the $17 million projected for road needs, commissioners say that voters may look more favorably on a renewal of a time-limited fee if they see progress is being made on specific projects.

Cartmill said like most counties and cities, Clackamas County is banking on state lawmakers taking action in their next regular session in 2017 to add to local efforts.

“We are almost counting on the state passing a transportation package,” she said.

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