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Propping up county bridges

Candidate wonder: How do we keep our bridges from falling down?


by: TRIBUEN PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Candidates for Multnomah County offices on the May primary election ballot are looking for ways to fund improvements and maintenance for the countys Willamette River bridges. The Broadway Bridge, in the background behind the Steel Bridge, is in need of seismic improvements, which the county says could be expensive.Multnomah County needs at least $220 million for seismic upgrade to four of its oldest bridges across the Willamette River — and probably a whole lot more.

That’s in addition to at least $550 million county officials say they need to maintain all six bridges through 2035, a figure that is probably also very low.

But there is no plan to raise all the money the county needs for its bridges and roads, and none has emerged so far in the races for the three Multnomah County Commission seats on the May 20 primary election ballot.

Although many of the candidates say such infrastructure improvements are a high priority, no consensus has emerged supporting any particular funding plan. That’s despite a growing awareness that a large earthquake expected to hit the region will likely disable all of the bridges except the 2008 Sauvie Island Bridge and the Sellwood Bridge, which is being replaced. The Broadway Bridge, Burnside Bridge, Morrison Bridge and Hawthorne Bridge would all likely suffer severe structural damage.

“Awareness of the earthquake threat has been growing over the years and is now becoming a top concern,” says county spokesman Mike Pullen.

According to Pullen, the county’s estimates for its bridge needs are out of date. "The County's estimates for seismic repairs were developed years ago, before much information on the earthquake threat was available, and have only been updated for inflation since then. Other bridge repairs have been added to the list over the years as parts wear out." The most recent estimate of approximately $1.118 billion for the next 20 years the county’s most recent Transportation Capital Improvement Plan is probably far too low, says Pullen.

As a result, the county has embarked on a study to determine a more realistic estimate for its future bridge needs. Pullen says it is scheduled to be completed and head to the commission for discussion and approval this fall.

But the study will not say how the needs will be met. Like other governments, the county is facing a transportation infrastructure funding crisis. The largest single funding source — federal and state gas taxes — are not keeping up with inflation because people are driving less and buying more fuel efficient cars. The Portland City Council is beginning to consider a road fee of $8 or $12 a month for residential properties and a yet-to-be-determined amount for businesses to help close its maintenance gap.

The county commission is not that far along, however. This is partly because the study is still underway. And, it’s partly because of a leadership gap caused last year by County Chair Jeff Cogen’s unexpected resignation and Commissioner Deborah Kafoury’s resignation to campaign for his post, as required by Multnomah County rules. Their replacements were appointed, not elected, and are primarily caretakers until after this year’s elections.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The 88-year-old Burnside Bridge slowly closes after a test lift last week. The county recently spent about $9 million on repairs to the bridge.

‘Make it a priority’

Even then, it is unclear whether the new commission will quickly coalesce around a transportation funding plan. None of the major candidates in the two most contested races have agreed on a transportation plan yet. They include Kafoury and former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who are running to replace Cogen; and state Rep. Jules Bailey (D-Dist. 42) and businessman Brian Wilson, who are running to replace Kafoury.

“Knowing that we’re in the middle of the planning process, it’s best that wait and see what the new figures are,” says Kafoury, who noted she took the lead in securing the funds for the Sellwood Bridge replacement project.

On the campaign trail, Francesconi has proposed the creation of a regional bridge authority that includes all of the governments with responsibility for bridge funding or whose citizens regularly use the bridges. That includes the state, Metro, the county and the city of Portland. Francesconi says bringing all of the partners together could help produce a consensus on the need to prioritize bridge funding. Kafoury counters that the authority would be another layer of government with no guarantee of generating additional funds.

Bailey agrees that financing the bridge upgrades will require a state and regional approach. “Our economy and safety depends on these bridges, and we need our partners to step up,” says Bailey.

But, unlike Francesconi, Bailey is not proposing a regional bridge authority. Instead, he says the county should work with the Legislature next year when lawmakers are expected to consider a new statewide transportation funding package. It could include an increase in state gas taxes and motor vehicle registration fees.

“Multnomah County needs to make it a priority to get upgrades of these bridges into the package, and combine that with city, county, and regional funds,” Bailey says.

Wilson agrees that the county should lobby the 2015 Legislature for more bridge funds, and says the state’s congressional delegate should also be recruited to secure federal funds. And he mentions the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange, a new program in the Oregon treasurer’s office created by the 2013 Legislature that is seeking private capital to be invested in public infrastructure programs.

“We should look to the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange for input on feasibility, cost savings and how other regional governments are finding resources to address this same problem,” Wilson says.

Both Kafoury and Wilson noted that not every bridge needs to be upgraded at once. Kafoury says the work can be done in phases, while Wilson proposes the county prioritize the Burnside Bridge because it has already received some seismic improvements.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - The Burnside Bridges old gears grind during a recent test lift. The bridge is one of four Willamette River spans that at least one county commission candidate says could be part of a regional bridge authority to fund needed maintenance and repairs.

Structurally deficient bridges

A debate on funding priorities for Multnomah County’s bridges comes as a new national report points to hundreds of structurally deficient bridges across the state.

An analysis of the 2013 National Bridge Inventory database by the American Road & Transportation Builders Association released last week found that 6 percent of Oregon’s 7,656 bridges (431) were structurally deficient. That report included all bridges in the state, including those owned by Multhomah County.

The report also found that 1,323 bridges across the state were considered functionally obsolete. The state’s Highway Bridge Replacement and Rehabilitation Program estimated that it would cost $3.5 billion to fix only 1,843 of the bridges.

One of the bridges considered most structurally deficient — the Sellwood Bridge — is being replaced. Other Portland-area bridges that fall into that category include the Iowa Street Viaduct near Interstate 5, which also has been repaired during the past few years; and a bridge on Highway 99E.

To repair the county’s bridges, there are two funding options no one has volunteered yet — raising the county gas tax and motor vehicle registration fee. The county collects a 3-cent-a-gallon gas tax and a $19 motor vehicle registration fee, which is being used to help fund the Sellwood Bridge replacement project. Raising them has not yet been proposed.

Commissioner Loretta Smith, who is expected to win re-election, has not made infrastructure funding a central issue in her campaign. Commissioners Judy Shiprack and Diane McKeel, who are not up for re-election this year, did not respond to requests for comment.