Car tag fees to almost triple for quake-safe Burnside Bridge

Multnomah County

The second vote on the fee increase will be on December 5

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — One vote down, one vote to go.

Multnomah County commissioners are just a few weeks away from voting to raise county vehicle registration fees. The move would amend the current ordinance, increasing the fee from $19 annually to $56—nearly tripling dues—beginning in 2021.

Leaders say it’s a small price to pay for a huge project: making Portland’s Burnside Bridge able to withstand a major earthquake.

“Without raising the fee, we don’t see another way to get the project done,” Multnomah County Spokesman Mike Pullen explained.

It’s one of the largest undertakings ever for the county, and is estimated to cost between $550 – $850 million. Even after several years of initial environmental review studies, the Earthquake Ready Burnside Bridge is still nearly a decade away from becoming a reality. 

None of the county’s bridges across the Willamette are built to withstand a major earthquake, said Pullen. Without seismic upgrades, the city will be left divided in a Cascadian Subduction quake, and parts of major lifelines like Burnside, Naito Parkway, and Interstate-5 could be destroyed.

In Thursday morning’s county commission meeting, the chilling simulation of what that looks like played on a large screen above the commissioners. After a nervous silence that often follows this kind of presentation, leaders stressed the need for more funding. 

“I think it’s a small price to pay on an individual level, to invest in this essential infrastructure that we need to improve,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said.

“It’s critical to make this investment,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson agreed.

The county plans to amend the current ordinance, nearly tripling current registration renewal fees.  The county fee of $56 annually would then be equal to the state fee, meaning Multnomah County drivers would pay $224 to the state every two years when updating a tag.

County leaders say the increase is intended only for financing seismic upgrades to the Burnside Bridge. However, there’s no sunset provision, meaning the increase would be here to stay, presumably re-allocated for future transportation projects down the line. 

The motion has created questions and mixed reaction from drivers. Some, like Kerry Rasmussen, are just now learning of the plan.

“I understand the retrofits need to be done, but of course I’d like to see it come from somewhere else,” she said. “Not every driver uses the Burnside Bridge, so it doesn’t seem fair.”

Richard Sandall drives over the bridge nearly every day, but said he doesn’t think drivers should have to foot this bill.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea. We pay enough money in taxes,” he said.  

Pullen said it’s not that easy.

“You typically pay for road and bridge projects with transportation dollars. That comes from the money when you buy gas, and the money when you register your car,” he said. “We have scratched our heads to see how else can we fund this project, and the vehicle fee seems like the best tool to raise the most money for what’s going to be a really expensive project.”

That’s because other forms of funding aren’t as concentrated, or guaranteed. Pullen said a toll on the Burnside wouldn’t be effective in a city with 9 other options to cross the river, and no existing toll infrastructure. More gas taxes would bring in revenue, but that’s shared with other governments.

A county registration fee is guaranteed cash for the county.

“I think there’s a growing awareness that we’re not ready for the big earthquake in this region,” Pullen said. “It’s a little bit of all of us helping out with that, that’s where the fee comes in.”

The help wouldn’t stop at the county level. Higher renewal fees are estimated to bring in about $270 million for the project—only about a third of what’s needed based on current cost estimates.

Commissioners said they’re going to ask Metro, state, and federal partners for the rest of the funding. A Metro Council plan for a Regional Transportation Measure on the November 2020 ballot is beginning to take shape. It would recommend $150 million for the Earthquake Ready project. But to get that help, commissioners said they need to show they can pay for some of it first.

The second vote to make the fee increase a reality will happen at the Multnomah County Commission board meeting December 5. Citizens can offer public comment on the measure via email, in writing, or at the board meeting before the vote.

Click here for more information about the proposed amendment.

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