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Our Opinion: Aging bridges can no longer be ignored

The Portland area has a bridge problem — and it goes far beyond the lifeless Columbia River Crossing.

The crossing project was left for dead by the 2014 Oregon Legislature, which failed to move forward with a one-state plan to build a new Interstate 5 bridge. For some, that decision has the taste of bitter defeat; for others it’s sweet relief.

The underlying problem, however, has not disappeared and it’s emblematic of a larger reality: This region’s bridges are old, undersized, vulnerable to earthquakes and in many circumstances unsafe. These facts are well documented, but with the notable exception of the Sellwood Bridge now under construction, there is no overall plan for upgrading or replacing these archaic structures.

That’s why it is encouraging to see the issue of bridges emerge in the election campaign for Multnomah County chair. The county has a particular interest in bridges because it has been saddled with the responsibility for taking care of six bridges over the Willamette River — the Burnside, Broadway, Hawthorne, Morrison, Sauvie Island and Sellwood bridges.

Maintenance of these bridges — and funding to pay for it — has been a problem for years. County officials at times have argued that the bridges are a uniquely regional asset — used every day by residents of all three counties in the metro area — and therefore shouldn’t be the sole responsibility of one county.

As reported March 4 in the Portland Tribune, the two candidates for county chair — Jim Francesconi and Deborah Kafoury — recently broached the topic of bridge maintenance during a joint appearance before a transportation group. Francesconi advocated the creation of a regional bridge authority to address the problem — a solution also pursued by former county Chair Ted Wheeler.

Kafoury countered that another layer of government isn’t necessary, but she did point out that other possibilities — such as tolling — have been suggested in the past. Kafoury clarified at the time she is not proposing a tolling plan, and her staff has since said she opposes tolls.

Nevertheless, whether tolling or a regional bridge authority ever receives serious consideration, the important point is that the issue is getting aired. And when you think about the two divergent approaches, they have something in common: Either tolls or a bridge authority would require the people who use the bridges — the residents of the entire region — to pay for their maintenance. With tolls, motorists would pay the price of updated bridges as a user fee. With a bridge authority, the cost presumably would be spread among taxpayers of all three metro counties.

The state’s population and economy is centered in the Portland area. Multnomah County, Portland, and yes, even the state of Oregon, can no longer afford to put this problem off. If the unthinkable scenario — a significant earthquake — were to happen, most of the area’s bridges would either not survive or would be significantly damaged. Emergency assistance would be hindered and the economy would be crippled.

But it doesn’t even take an earthquake to break the most significant north-south arterial in the Pacific Northwest.

It was only last year that a portion of the Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River at Mount Vernon, Wash., fell into the river on May 23. That bridge was only 58 years old and had not been listed as structurally deficient.

Of the six bridges maintained by Multnomah County, three of them — the Hawthorne (1910), the Broadway (1913) and the Burnside (1926) — are much older (they’re also on the National Register of Historic Places).

For the Portland-area bridges maintained by the state of Oregon, three of them, the Interstate 5 Bridge (1917, with the southbound span added in 1958), the Ross Island (1926), and the beautiful St. Johns (1931) are also inching ever closer to the century mark.

In all of this there is a unifying element between the failure of the Columbia River Crossing project and the comments made by Kafoury and Francesconi. It will take take bold leadership, inspired thinking and reasoned negotiation to solve the problem of this region’s aging bridges.