Wheeler: Sellwood Bridge rebuilding project at “make-or-break” point

If you think this issue doesn’t affect us here in outer East Portland – think again! Here’s what’s happening regarding this bridge, for which we’ll all pay to rebuild …

Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler says they’re still taking comments on the Sellwood Bridge rebuilding project.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Some 130 people came to check in on the progress of the Sellwood Bridge rebuilding project on September 30, at an open house held at the Oaks Park Dance Pavilion.

In an exclusive interview with East Portland News at the event, Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler told us, “We are at what I would describe indelicately as the ‘make-or-break stage’.  We have preliminary design and engineering specification estimates about what we’re going to build, and where we’re going to build it. A pretty good ballpark figure for the cost of the bridge is, in 2014 dollars, about $330 million.”

What’s the big deal? This 80-year-old bridge has seen better days. Inspectors check the superstructure quarterly to make sure it’s safe to use.

Somewhere between being a mason and an artist, these Multnomah County Bridge crew members patch cracks and seal the deck to weather the winter storms.

Wheeler noted that the key question facing Multnomah County and its residents is funding. “Funding hinges on a couple of key sources, the most important of which is a County Vehicle Registration fee, to be levied in Multnomah County and in Clackamas County.”

Later, on October 22nd, Multnomah County spokesman Michael Pullen expanded on Wheeler’s statement, telling East Portland News that the “Jobs and Transportation Act” enacted by the Oregon Legislature and signed by Governor Kulongoski this year the permitted the county to levy a special, restricted, vehicle registration fee, and also allocated $30 million for the new interchange with Highway 43 at the west end of the bridge.

County-wide fee enacted
“Adoption of our county vehicle registration fee requires votes at two readings of the ordinance,” Pullen noted. “At the October 15 reading, it passed by a 5 – 0 vote, as it did at the second reading on October 22. Thus the fee was approved unanimously on the 22nd by the Board of Commissioners.”

Starting in 2010, Multnomah County residents will pay this surcharge on their vehicle registration to the state DMV when they pay their state registration fee. See the “Multnomah County Vehicle Registration Fee summary” at the end of this article.

About 130 people came to consider all aspects of the bridge rebuilding process and question county officials.

Wheeler outlines bridge funding sources
Returning to our exclusive interview with Wheeler at the open house, “The City of Portland has indicated plans to fund $100 million of the project’s cost with new transportation funds resulting from the bill. We are in negotiations with Portland’s Mayor and City Council on an Inter-Governmental Agreement; we’re very close to that.

“Then, we’ll need about $40 million, give or take, of federal money to close the deal during the next [U.S. Department of Transportation] reauthorization process. We’re getting support from our delegation in Washington, DC – our congressional delegation.  I feel like there is momentum building to get this project done. If everything goes as it should, we expect to have the funding in place over the next year to year and a half, and we’ll be ready to start construction in 2012.”

Clackamas County to pitch in – a little
Also authorized by the state to enact a special vehicle registration surcharge upon its own drivers was Clackamas County. These fees are to be dedicated to the Sellwood Bridge project, and a fee will be charged, although apparently a smaller one than Multnomah County residents will be paying. Half – or more – of the motorists using the bridge during the weekday commute hours are traveling to or from Clackamas County.

Because the bridge also serves commuters and commercial users traveling to and from Washington County, at the open house we asked Wheeler if that county also might possibly chip in.

“No,” Wheeler replied with a knowing smile. “Tempting though it may be to keep Washington County residents off the bridge or charge them a toll – I was told that that would be okay, but only if all Multnomah County citizens stayed off Highway 217.” Of course, Highway 217 is a state highway, and the Sellwood Bridge is specifically and solely owned by Multnomah County.

When we asked Wheeler to compare the Sellwood Bridge project to the Columbia River Crossing (CRC) project, the County Chair said, “Not to criticize the CRC, but it is a gigantic nebulous project, and in my opinion – and it’s just my opinion – the citizens aren’t really connected to it yet in any meaningful way.

“We started this [Sellwood Bridge Rebuilding] process by asking the public what we should do. We have more than 5,000 names on our public distribution list. There’s a two-year community engagement process that’s led us to where we are today. This is been very much an organic process, in which the community has had a significant role to play to determine what and where we’re building it. As a result, their strong support for it.”

Overall, Wheeler concluded, said he feels good about the project. “Having been Chair for three years now, I’ve learned not to get too excited too quickly about anything – or to consider anything done, until it’s actually done. I feel that ‘the stars are aligning well’ on this project. The public process has been fantastic. We have a clear consensus agreement on what we should be building. The estimates are being checked and cross-checked by independent sources, to make sure that we are rigorously questioning our own assumptions about the underlying costs of the project.”

Federal approval is expected in summer or fall of 2010. After approval, the county can use federal funds already secured to buy right of way, and design the project. If funding is secured, construction can begin in late 2012, and would then be expected to be completed in 2016.

SE Portland resident Sandy Hubbard writes her comments. “I’m very impressed with how they have taken the public’s comments and narrowed the West and of the interchange.”

Multnomah County
Vehicle Registration Fee
Summary

  • County Commissioners unanimously approved annual vehicle registration fee of $19.
  • The fee will be in place for 20 years.
  • Vehicle owners would begin paying the new fee in the Fall of 2010. Vehicle owners would pay the fee to the state when they pay their state registration fee.
  • Multnomah County’s fee is projected to raise $127 million for the project.
  • Multnomah County’s fee will apply to 577,240 motorized vehicles registered in the county. Trucks weighing 26,000 lbs. or more are exempted by state law, since large trucks pay a weight/mile fee.

To find out more, take a look at the special website set up by Multnomah County regarding the Sellwood Bridge: CLICK HERE.

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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