Today's Mercury includes a brief look at where Multnomah County stands in its five-decade struggle to build a courthouse that won't fall down in an earthquake. The short answer: The project is moving very quickly, largely due to buy-in from Salem that's been absent in past efforts. But there are big questions.

The state legislature, for instance, has already roped off $15 million that will help plan the courthouse project, but Multnomah County still hasn't identified necessary matching funds to access that cash. And while it looks for that money, the county is scrambling to make another bid for millions more in state dollars (which it would also have to match, with as-yet unidentified money). But there's no telling how much the courthouse project will cost, or where it will be built.

That uncertainty is especially interesting because the county is planning on spending $9 million dollars that tie the courthouse to specific piece of land: A county-owned plot at the west end of the Hawthorne Bridge.

It looks like this:

That might seem an unlikely place to put a $200 million-plus courthouse—there's an off-ramp running through the middle. But it's also close to the Multnomah County Detention Center and the many law firms that have office space near the existing courthouse. What's more, the county already owns the land.

So back in 2007, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners inked a helpful deal with the Portland Development Commission. The PDC agreed to supply $9 million toward the estimated $10.7 million it would cost to move that Hawthorne Bridge off ramp, thereby freeing up the property for a courthouse.

In exchange the county had to agree to sell its land at the west end of the Morrison Bridge, which it since has. And the county needed to cooperate when it came to "possible redevelopment" of a number of other properties. Under the deal, the county had five years to start the offramp project.

But the $9 million arrived and nothing happened.

Since 2007, the money has sat in the county's coffers, unused (erstwhile Portland blogger Jack Bogdanski wrote at the time that Portland taxpayers paid an interest rate of more than 6 percent on the money, just so it could languish in a bank account). That inaction prompted the county and PDC so sign an extension to the deal in 2012—it now dries up in November.


"For any number of reasons, it didn't come through the way people anticipated," PDC spokesman Shawn Uhlman told the Mercury in today's story. "It's tough to speculate on how this thing plays out."

Even though county officials say there's no telling where the new courthouse could be—they're looking at purchasing parcels in the Pearl District and Central Eastside, as well as downtown—and even though the $9 million deal is explicitly tied to moving the Hawthorne offramp, the county is planning, finally, on spending the money.

"The county has the $9 million," county spokesman Hank Stern told us yesterday, "and intends to use it."

County Chair Marissa Madrigal even proposed moving the money into a special new fund for the courthouse project in her newly released budget.

How these facts will square with each other isn't clear. The county—after a period of intense study it's only just beginning—could elect to use the bridgehead property for the courthouse after all. Or officials could use the money to move the offramp, sell off the property to developers, and use those profits to help build a courthouse. Uhlman wouldn't discuss whether the money might have to be paid back, saying the PDC would favor altering the deal before that happened.

One thing that is certain: If the county finally satisfies the deal and moves the off-ramp, there will be traffic snarls. The project calls for closing the Hawthorne's busy westbound traffic for 9 to 12 months.

"The current belief is [the money is] going to get used and something will happen at that site," Stern says. "I can’t sit here and tell you today that’s going to happen."

Like the Sellwood Bridge replacement project, the courthouse replacement is a mammoth undertaking—the largest capital project on the county's plate in the near future.

The bridge replacement is currently pegged at $307.5 million. The Multnomah County Courthouse has been estimated for years to cost around $200 million, but that's murky. And recent comments from county officials intimately involved in the project suggest it could reach as high as $300 million. By comparison, a brand new headquarters for the health department is expected to cost $46 million. The courthouse is huge.