Wheeler pitches vehicle license fee boost, to help fix county’s ailing bridges

If it passes, Multnomah County consumer car and truck registration fees will go up by nearly $50 per renewal; but commercial trucks get a free ride. See why the County Chair hopes you’ll vote for this tax anyway …

Explaining the county’s need for additional funds for bridge maintenance, Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler talks about the history of our aging bridges.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler is barnstorming the district, hoping citizens will shoulder the fiscal weight of fixing up the county’s sagging bridges.

At sparsely-attended a meeting in SE Portland on February 4, Chair Wheeler reminded attendees that the county, not the city, is responsible for all of the bridges that cross the Willamette River: the Broadway, Burnside, Hawthorne, Morrison, Sauvie Island, and Sellwood.

“These bridges range in age from 50 to 98 years,” Wheeler began. “Each day more than 180,000 vehicles cross the bridges, in addition to an estimated 12,000 bicyclists and thousands of pedestrians.”

Wheeler, supported at this meeting by County Commissioner Lisa Naito and staff transportation bureau staff members, said the county has a 20-year bridge repair capital shortfall of $490 million.

Chair Wheeler says the structural integrity of the bridges are at stake.

Reliability, integrity and seismic upgrades
“Four of our bridges have moveable lift spans,” Wheeler noted. “All machinery is old, and all of it needs work.”

The Broadway Bridge, he said, lifts and rolls back on big wheels. “When these bridges are repaired or upgraded, all of the parts must be custom made. We had a full metal shop at the base of the Burnside Bridge to custom make parts for that bridge.”

Wheeler next spoke about preserving the structural integrity of the structures and surfaces. “When you look at the corroded steel that needs replacement, the paint needed to help to preserve our bridges, and the deteriorating concrete on these bridges, it is clear we must take action.”

Additionally, the County Chair pointed out that these bridges need to be upgraded to modern seismic standards, too.

Calling the Sellwood Bridge the ‘poster child’ for bridges in need of repair, he says the fee increase will give the county money to leverage state and federal funds.

Sellwood: a ‘poster child’
“Of all the bridges that need attention,” Wheeler went on, “The Sellwood Bridge is the ‘poster child’. It was first opened in 1925. What many people don’t know is that it’s perhaps the nation’s first ‘green’ bridge – many parts used to build this bridge were recycled from the old Burnside Bridge when it was replaced.

Wheeler noted that the west end of this narrow bridge sags, has corroded steel and cracked concrete, and is too weak to support bus or truck traffic. “We estimate it will cost $300 Million, or more, to repair or replace this bridge.”

Sings the budget blues
Presenting the message long-sent by Portland City Commissioner Sam Adams, Wheeler bemoaned state’s limited per-gallon gas tax, without increase since 1994. “The revenue is flat, and our costs are up: The cost of asphalt is up 59%, steel up 128% and overall construction costs are up 85% since our last gas tax increase.”

The Board of County Commissioners, explained Wheeler, is considering referring a measure for the May ballot that would increase the county vehicle registration fee by $24 per vehicle, per year. Motorcycles will see a $12 per vehicle per year increase.

“The public has a fair right to say yes or no. We have the obligation to be honest about what it means it ‘live within our means’. If the increased fee is earmarked for roads and bridges, this measure looks best. It’s a straight up or straight down vote on whether or not to support this infrastructure.”

Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito, county bridge project information officer Mike Pullen, and Chair Wheeler field questions.

Federal budget cycle causes urgency
Wheeler said $100 Million of the funds raised will be earmarked for the County’s share of the Sellwood Bridge project.

“We have to go to the regional and state government for funding; this measure doesn’t let the state or federal government off the hook. Federal Transportation Bill negotiations start this year; the next round is 6 years away. We need this money to help leverage federal funding.”

Questions and Answers

Q Many people from Clackamas, Washington and Columbia county use the Sellwood Bridge. Why not impose a toll?

A Wheeler: “I agree completely. We were pre-empted from charging tolls on County bridges when the state gave us the responsibility to care for the bridges. But, these bridges are undoubtedly part of the regional infrastructure picture. We need a Regional Bridge Authority. It is absurd that Multnomah County residents are solely responsible [to pay] for maintaining these bridges. We need the region to chip in.”

Q Commercial vehicles do more damage to bridges than consumer trucks or cars. Why aren’t they charged an additional licensing fee?

A Wheeler: “Commercial vehicles pay fees based on a different formula. We are, by state law, pre-empted from changing those fees.”

Q Why not an additional gas tax? Even visitors from out-of-state have to buy fuel.

A Wheeler: “There are very powerful lobbies involved. Big oil interests have deep pockets. Dealers will be upset in Multnomah County because they say a higher tax here will put them at a competitive disadvantage.”

Naito: “I think we can invoke a gas tax, but voters didn’t support it like they did the [increased] registration fee when we polled on the question. And, the state legislature is considering increasing the tax on gas to support state-wide transportation projects.”

Q What do you say to residents of the City of Maywood Park [landlocked within the City of Portland and in Multnomah County] who claim the fee increase is unfair because they’re being taxed for bridges they seldom use?

A Wheeler: All of the Maywood Park residents – if they get mail, or use goods and services that come into their community, make use of these bridges.  Secondarily, the bridges are a part of the regional transportation infrastructure. If a bridge goes down for extended maintenance, everyone will feel the impact.”

More meetings to come
In closing, Wheeler stated, “We have to be honest. If it doesn’t pass, we are where we are today. We will live within our means. We’ll reevaluate all of our projects in terms of maintenance and repair.

“The cost is $2 per month per vehicle. This is not something we take lightly. The alternate question is, ‘If not this, then what?’ I’m not trying to cram this down anyone’s throat. It is very important to the vitality and economic stability of the entire community.”

The remaining town hall events are scheduled for:

  • Monday, February 11, 6 – 8 pm, Multnomah Building, Boardroom, 501 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland
  • Tuesday, February 19, 6 – 8 pm, North Portland Health Clinic, 9000 N. Lombard Blvd., Portland

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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