Just in time for the Labor Day weekend, a new report says Oregon bridges face no imminent safety concerns. Governor Ted Kulongoski accepted the report Thursday, which he ordered after the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota on August 1st. As Colin Fogarty reports, lawmakers are laying the groundwork for a transportation funding package with bridge safety in mind.
When the governor asked for new inspections of Oregon bridges similar to the Minnesota bridge that collapsed, transportation officials said they did not expect to find any problems. The Oregon Department of Transportation says it already has an aggressive inspection schedule. And sure enough, ODOT found no imminent safety concerns.
Even so, Kulongoski said the report was useful.
Ted Kulongoski: "I was confident that when I talked to them originally and they said, 'We've got this under control,' that they did. But what I had to do was to let the citizens see, and let them understand, and tell them to go back and inspect these bridges, so that the public understood that the bridges are safe."
Oregon Department of Transportation director Matt Garrett says Oregon is midway through a 10-year plan to spend more than a billion dollars repairing Oregon's bridges
Matt Garrett: "And all one needs to do is drive around the state of Oregon. You will see a sea of red and orange cones or barrels indicating those investments as they bloom across the state. That investment is working."
Nonetheless, the inspections found bridges that have minor fatigue, cracking, rusty girders, surface ruts, and paint chips.
Even with all the money being spent, ODOT's Matt Garret estimates an $800 million annual difference between what Oregon's roads and bridges need and what they will actually get.
Matt Garrett: "The appetite far outstrips the revenues that we have in place. We will come forward, hopefully, with a comprehensive investment package that deals and makes healthier the transportation system in the state of Oregon."
ODOT's proposal could include hikes in title fees, registration fees, and license plate fees. In 2003, Oregon lawmakers approved a creative funding package that raised vehicle registration fees to fund billions of dollars in construction bonds.
But a more controversial funding source is on the table. When Governor Kulongoski asked whether a gas tax increase will be part of the discussion, he said “of course.” That idea was rejected by Oregon voters in 2000. The vote wasn't even close — 88% said no; just 12% said yes.
But Democratic state Senator Rick Metsger, who chairs a legislative transportation committee, plans a different approach than the the basic gas tax sacked by voters.
Rick Metsger: "And the public was not convinced that there was a need for infrastructure. And we learned tremendously from that experience that this is a conversation that Oregonians have to have."
Metsger hopes to prompt that conversation through a series of community meetings around the state beginning in September.
Kulongoski says even with all the news about bridge safety, it's concern about the economy and how much it depends on the roads that will help build support for a funding package.
Ted Kulongoski: "As serious and dramatic as the bridge collapse in Minneapolis was, I don't think that is what is driving the debate around transportation in Oregon today."
Lawmakers say they're hoping to have the details of a transportation funding package worked out in time to present to the legislature in 2009. In the meantime, ODOT has inspected 45 of the 46 Oregon bridges that have a similar design to the one that collapsed in Minnesota.
The only one left is the crumbling Sellwood Bridge in southeast Portland.