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Bridging the Gap

Why Has Replacing the Sellwood Bridge Taken So Damn Long?

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On July 19, the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved the much-anticipated design of the new Sellwood Bridge — closing the books on six years of planning. While the replacement comes as a relief for both commuters and local officials tired of holding their breath as they drive over the infamously dangerous 87-year-old bridge (known for its "two points out of one hundred possible points" safety rating), many are irked that a solution wasn't found until now. Sure, the county only spotted major cracks in the bridge's foundation in 2005, but planners say the county knew it was due for an overhaul years before. So the question remains: Why has it taken so long for the county to replace a bridge that's been on its last legs for over a decade?

Like most of the region's massive transit projects, a lot of it comes down to finances. When Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury took the reins of the bridge project in 2009, the county only had $11 million in federal funds to work with, and plans for a bridge slated to cost $330 million.

"There were a lot of good intentions, but just not enough fuel," says Kafoury. Over the past three years, Kafoury has been behind the scramble to apply for federal grants and regional funds—a process riddled with slow-moving bureaucratic hoops to jump through—that brought the project to this point.

But a big part of the problem, says local bridge historian and author Sharon Wortman, is that the county shouldn't be in charge of the Willamette River bridges at all.

"What it comes down to is that these bridges are owned by the wrong agency," says Wortman. "It shouldn't be only the county's responsibility. It's like the county is a parent with sole custody of the bridge and no one else is making their support payments." The set-up leads to complicated agreements like Portland and Multnomah County's long-debated Sellwood Bridge deal, where multiple governments have to negotiate because while the county is responsible for the bridge span itself, the city maintains the roads that lead directly onto it.

In an ideal situation, Wortman says, Portland would have a organization similar to San Francisco's Golden Gate Transportation District, a transit authority independent of the local governments and solely committed to the bridge issues.

In 2010, the mayor's office attempted to take over control of the Willamette Bridges from the county. However, County Chair Jeff Cogen put a halt to this move in a terse letter to the mayor, publicly blaming him for dragging the pricey process out.

Having multiple governments involved in planning the bridge has some neighbors feeling like the public input process is disjointed.

"There are too many fingers in the pie: County, city, Metro, state, neighborhood associations. We're lacking in collaboration," says former Sellwood-Moreland Improvement League board member Dana Beck. Granted, neighbors had a say in the design of the bridge, but Beck says the decisions ultimately lay in the city and county's hands. "They never see what we as a community want, only what they think is best," says Beck, using Sam Adam's recent push for a Sellwood streetcar—an idea many neighbors were against — as an example.

On the other hand, county officials say the time between the appearance of the threatening crack and the end design—seven years—isn't that long for a project of this size.

"It's pretty typical, really," says county spokesperson Mike Pullen, who's been involved with the project since the start. "It's an important process that takes serious planning... not a quick fix but a long-term solution."

But would the county have done anything if the threatening cracks hadn't popped up seven years ago? It's hard to say. In 2005, a contractor who evaluated the longevity of the current bridge estimated it wouldn't give out until after 2015.

"It probably could have limped along as a disliked bridge for some time," says Pullen.

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