Multnomah County looks ready to enact an annual vehicle registration fee of $19 starting next fall, to pay for its portion of replacing the ailing Sellwood Bridge.
The bridge opened in 1925. In 1960, three feet was cut out to accommodate a landslide. Loads have been restricted twice since 1985, there's a sag in the bridge, and the bridge has been patched up with a series of makeshift repairs. "It's obsolete for bikes, pedestrians, and vehicles," said a staffer, introducing the proposals.
The legislature paved the way for the county's vehicle registration tax as part of House Bill 2001 in the last session, which is expected to generate $127million in bond proceeds for the county over 20 years. There are 577,000 eligible vehicles in Multnomah County, although trucks over 26,000 pounds are excluded from having to pay. The county will vote to approve the ordinance setting up the tax on October 22, with a first reading on October 15.
The county chose a preferred alternative to the bridge late in 2008, which has 12 foot shared sidewalks on each side, 6.5 foot bike lanes on each side, and two 12 foot travel lanes for vehicles. Current estimates for the new bridge are $330million in 2014 dollars (accounting for inflation). The Federal Government is likely to contribute $40million, while the city of Portland will also contribute $100million towards the cost, as long as the bridge is "streetcar ready." Mayor Sam Adams was in the audience this morning to watch the discussion and gave testimony.
"It's not like this hasn't been an issue for the past 60 years," said Adams. "So I want to thank you for your leadership on this process, your work lobbying at the state legislature. I'm here to support your proposal to raise the vehicle registration fee."
"It is unusual for the city to do this [contribute $100million to the cost of the bridge]," said Adams. "But I do so willingly. There are tough trade offs for the city, but I support this not only because of the condition of the bridge but also the circulation challenges that South Portland faces."
State Representative Carolyn Tomei from Milwaukie and Southeast Portland said she supported the idea. "The people in my district have been waiting for years for the Sellwood Bridge to be replaced," she said.
"Asking the public for money is never easy to do, especially when times are tough," said Metro Regional Councilor Rex Burkholder. "But I think you have made the right connection between the need and the responsibility that needs to be taken by our community."
"Only a fraction of people who want to bike over that bridge currently do, because of the safety issues," said Scott Bricker, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance. "95 percent of the bicyclists we surveyed recently do actually own vehicles, so they will be paying towards this bridge."
Clackamas County is hoping to institute a similar $5 annual vehicle tax next year.
So, does Chair Wheeler expect a backlash for raising taxes?
"Certainly I expect some, these are tough economic times and families are weighing every dollar," he says. "Having said that this project has strong public support, and it should come as a surprise to nobody that if we're going to replace a bridge, we have to fund it. We've tried to be as fair as possible, and that's led to the regional collaboration between the city, county, state, Clackamas County, the Federal Government. We've done a good job of diversifying the sources of funding," he says. "So, is it painless? No. But this is a project with wide public support that I have poured a lot of my energy and frankly, my political credibility into."
Afterward, County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury joked that she was disappointed nobody came to speak against the proposal. "It's a kumbaya love fest," she said.