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, which visibly sags, has been patched up with a series of makeshift repairs since it first opened in 1925. In 1960, a nearby landslide caused the bridge to be reduced in width by three feet, and weight limits have been restricted twice since 1985. "It's obsolete for bikes, pedestrians, and vehicles," said a county staffer, introducing the tax proposal at a Multnomah County Board of Commissioners meeting last Thursday, October 8.

The county chose a new bridge design late in 2008—with 12-foot sidewalks on each side, 6.5-foot bike lanes on each side, and two 12-foot travel lanes for vehicles. Current cost estimates for the new bridge are $330 million in 2014 dollars, accounting for inflation. The federal government is likely to contribute $40 million, while the City of Portland will also contribute $100 million toward the cost, as long as the bridge is "streetcar ready." Other funding sources are still awaiting confirmation.

"It's not like this hasn't been an issue for the past 60 years," said Mayor Sam Adams at last week's hearing. "It is unusual for the city to do this, but I do so willingly. There are tough tradeoffs 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."

Meanwhile, the new car tax is expected to generate $127 million in bond proceeds for the county over 20 years. The county will vote to approve an ordinance setting up the tax on October 22. Clackamas County is hoping to institute a similar $5 annual vehicle tax next year.

Does Multnomah County Chair Ted 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."