SEASIDE — The majority of bridges in Seaside will need to be fixed to withstand a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, and one city councilor wants to use lodging tax dollars to pay for it.
City Councilor Tom Horning, a geologist, projects a 2 percent increase in the lodging tax will generate about $1 million a year to help pay for seven bridges and build two pedestrian bridges. He estimates the entire project would cost about $35 million over 20 years.
The urgency in Horning’s timeline is based on studies that show 9.0 magnitude earthquakes happen about once every 340 years. A Cascadia-like event of this size was last recorded 318 years ago, meaning the area is due to have another devastating quake in the next 25 years.
This magnitude would likely produce a 25-foot to 50-foot wave, destroying about 92 percent of Seaside’s buildings — emphasizing the need to invest in bridges that will act as evacuation routes out of the inundation zone.
“This is one thing we can do to save the most lives,” he said.
The City Council will discuss the idea Monday during a workshop centered around finding ways to reinforce the town’s bridges.
Raising the lodging tax to pay for infrastructure improvements has been contested by hoteliers and the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association. The lodging association, for example, sued Bend over the city’s use of tourism tax money for road repairs, and a judge sided with the association.
But proposing lodging tax dollars for a project intended to protect both residents and tourists in an emergency could be a first.
“If we have challenges from the lodging industry, I would say this is about saving the lives of their clients,” Horning said. “And I’m prepared to hammer on that point.”
Making Seaside’s aging bridges more earthquake-resistant has long been on the city’s agenda. In the past 15 years, bridges at East Broadway, First Avenue and two on 12th Avenue have been replaced to withstand a major earthquake, City Manager Mark Winstanley said.
The city has applications out for grants and Oregon Department of Transportation funding to rebuild bridges at Avenues S, U and G, all of which were originally built to the standards of the early 1960s.
But Seaside often falls through the cracks when applying for grant money, Winstanley said. The city is either too small to compete for projects or has too healthy of a budget to qualify for need-based grants intended for smaller, rural communities.
“Our bridges rate low enough to qualify for application, but there’s a lot of communities out there with bridges that are a whole lot worse,” Winstanley said. “And when they look at us, and see we’ve been able to build four bridges in 15 years, they think ‘it doesn’t look like you need money.’”
That’s part of the appeal for Horning’s call for a lodging tax hike. It would be a way for the city to raise money and complete projects more quickly than traditional funding mechanisms would allow. Winstanley says it’s not uncommon for it to take eight or nine years to complete a bridge from beginning to end.
“We can be put on lists, but we can’t afford to wait,” Horning said.
State law requires 70 percent of all lodging tax revenue be used for tourism promotion or property. Horning argues Seaside’s bridges should be considered a tourism facility, which in the statute is defined as “property that has a useful life of 10 or more years” and has a substantial purpose of supporting tourism.
Jason Brandt, CEO of the state’s lodging association, said anything beyond an access road — like to a specific campground or a park — would fall short of the state attorney general’s definition of supporting a tourism facility, and that repairs for roads, streets and bridges are still expected to be paid for from general fund resources.
“I think it’s far-fetched to believe (rebuilding bridges) is a legal use of restricted tourism tax dollars,” Brandt said.
But Horning disagrees, arguing that in Seaside, the only way to access the beach — the town’s main tourist attraction — almost always includes crossing a bridge. Horning said he wants to hear the thoughts and concerns of local lodging operators.
“If you took out our bridges, I think you would hear shrieks from the lodging industry about people not being able to get to their hotels,” Horning said. “If you can’t get to the beach, then you aren’t accommodating tourist activities.”