Should Portland Help Pay for Sellwood?

Mayor Adams is being accused of dragging his feet on the City’s contribution to the Sellwood Bridge replacement.

But let’s step back a bit. Is it the best use of $8M/year of the City’s share of increased gas tax revenues to fund a County facility (we’ll leave aside the question of whether having the County own the Willamette River bridges is rational or not – that’s a question for another post)?

Clearly the Sellwood connection is a vital part of Portland’s arterial network. But what are the other options? Given the large percentage of users of this bridge from outside the City and the County I think tolling might be a very good solution to better allocate costs to users. And that would free up $8M/year for other uses like sidewalks, bicycle facilities (or insert your favorite project here).


8 responses to “Should Portland Help Pay for Sellwood?”

  1. I think the rational-moral approach is the way to go. Regardless of who owns the bridge, we shouldn’t be in the business of making decisions based on previous bad decisions that might not be sensible in today’s environment.

  2. Tolling makes lot of sense to me. But maybe the overall project needs to be reexamined. Why are we looking at a replacement of the Sellwood when other Willamette bridges have been rehabbed? Some people cite the age of the structure (c. 1928) yet the Hawthorne Bridge is 18 years older and, apparently, its age, as per the centennial party this summer, is cause for celebration. Any motivation to replace the Hawthorne?

    Also the construction of the Sellwood is similar to other metal truss bridges—-that contain a lot more weight in the road surface. The Ross Island bridge has four lanes, the Morrison bridge has six lanes, and I would bet their roadbeds are stouter, too. And factor in the extra traffic they carry. So maybe it is a godsend that the Sellwood bridge is a narrow two-laner. The downside would be if the condition of the basic structure has deteriorated beyond hope.

    I would imagine the concrete piers are not heavily reinforced and the connections between them and the trusses may be relatively poor by today’s standards. Yet the Morrison bridge also has some glaring, substandard components—such as resting on 36 inch by 42 inch columns. Where do we draw the line in a critical evaluation of these public structures and stop expecting them to meet contemporary engineering standards?

    The more intricate equation would be “how do you make a project qualify for outside funding?” Would a streetcar line across the Sellwood open up some federal funding possibilities? I know they are planning for that eventuality.

    If money could be saved on this project, one solution to benefit the neighborhood I would like to see is a tunnel under Tacoma Street for through traffic—-since without additional infrastructure in the region that traffic will always be on the increase.

  3. Randy and Jeff Cogen argued strenuously over the use of URAs to fund the sports stadia, you’ll recall. In a conversation at length with Randy after, he made the broader point that M5 and other factors have come together to make a lot of the things the county has to pay for untenable or inappropriate. Randy’s point relevant to this topic is that Portland and Multno need to get a handle on the requirements for the metro area, and which entities should be given responsibilies for each of those, and that they were already in those kinds of theoretical discussions when they argued. And in fact that’s partly the reason WHY they argued according to Randy; he knew they’d talked about URAs in that context, and he couldn’t figure out why Jeff was pretending to believe things that weren’t true about them, in his opinion.

    So maybe part of the reason Adams is “dragging his feet” is that he also believes the larger question of who pays for what, should be better resolved before PDX just keeps handing over money.

  4. Here’s my opinion. Portland should fund it, seeing as it is part of Portland. Portland should try to get it relatively quick, because it’s pretty frightening to drive on, but at the same time, maybe you should hold off just till you’re absolutely sure that the economy is up to it.

  5. Cameron Johnson Says:

    Here’s my opinion. Portland should fund it, seeing as it is part of Portland. Portland should try to get it relatively quick, because it’s pretty frightening to drive on, but at the same time, maybe you should hold off just till you’re absolutely sure that the economy is up to it.

    Except it’s not “part of Portland,” because the County owns the bridges. And the depths of a recession is the best time to fund public works projects.

    The bridges are a regional asset and as such should be managed by a regional authority, and like it or not that would be Metro. Surely many affected taxpayers in all three counties would complain about paying for the bridges with property taxes because they don’t use them or, in the case of Washington County residents, none of these bridges are in their county, or a variety of other reasons. However, everybody in the region benefits from these bridges and the responsibility for maintaining them should be shared across the region as a whole and by the users of the bridges directly. The bridges are a limited resource, their benefit is not limited to Multnomah County residents and businesses, and therefore this one county should not be paying the full tab for these facilities.

    Back to the original topic though, tolls are the only sensible solution to funding the Sellwood Bridge repair and/or replacement. We need to fix it now, especially while people need work, and pay off the debt with tolls. Tolls are going to be a large part of future funding strategies for many road and bridge projects and a citizenry’s aversion to paying for what they use is not a good reason to delay a necessary project.

  6. The bridge is on the brink of being closed in the next few years if something isn’t done. It’s already closed to bus traffic and freight. So if we do nothing, it’ll wind up closed to everyone but pedestrians and bicyclists, and nobody will be driving on it anyway.

    So pay for it with tolls. Those willing to pay to cross there (including trucks) will continue to do so. Those who don’t want to pay don’t have to. They’ll wind up exactly where they’ll be anyway if we don’t repair/replace the bridge … having to cross at Ross Island or Oregon City.

    Really, this isn’t rocket science.

  7. Given that the Sellwod bridge is a property, but serves people from deep s.e. who work in the inner sw / nw area, it should either be payed for by tolls, or by a county tax. Either way, in of itself, the bridge is not a “Portland” problem per se I.E. if people need to work in Portland, they can either pay to play, or drive out of their way on 205, into Portland S or N.

  8. I’m with Joseph; I think the time has come to seriously consider transferring ownership of the region’s bridges (other than the ODOT bridges) to Metro. This is the case in other places where a wide-ranging population uses the bridges, such as the Bay Area or New York. Of course people in Washington County would complain about paying for a bridge like the Sellwood Bridge, but then most of Portland also doesn’t use the bridge (although I do). If we were serious about this, Metro could also take over bridges over the Tualitan, Clackamas, Sandy, etc…meaning every county would have bridges that would no longer be their responsibility. Then, as a region, we can prioritize and pool our money to rehab or rebuild bridges as needed.

    Barring that, Portland should undoubtedly take over the Willamette bridges. But it shouldn’t be a barrier to getting the Sellwood replaced. And it does need to be replaced, not simply rehabbed: its lanes are substandard, it has only a 5-foot sidewalk on one side, and the western approaches to the bridge are unsafe and outdated, especially for bicyclists and pedestrians.

    Tolling might work, but I think you’d have to toll the Ross Island as well, or a lot of the Clackamas County traffic would just go that way instead. And if you toll the Ross Island, then you’d have to toll the Hawthorne. And if you did that…well, you get the idea. So tolling probably isn’t an option for the Sellwood (like it would be for the CRC).

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