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PolitiFact Oregon loves to see The Oregonian cited in arguments for and against ballot measures. It makes us feel useful. So we were initially pleased to read in the arguments against a new vehicle registration fee for the Sellwood Bridge this comment from Clackamas County GOP Chairman John Lee: "The study that states that >70% of the traffic on the bridge is to/from Clackamas is over 10 years old and has been thoroughly debunked by the Oregonian."
Measure 3-372, for those who don’t follow Clackamas County news, would increase the state’s motor vehicle registration by $5 a year for county residents. The money, about $22 million, would go toward replacing the dilapidated Sellwood Bridge that is in neighboring Multnomah County but used by Clackamas County residents.
Just how much of the bridge is used by those residents has played a central role in the campaign. Proponents like to cite Metro’s May 1999 South Willamette River Crossing Study,which shows that about 70 percentof the 30,000 trips across the bridge each day originate or end inClackamas County.
Opponents of the measure argue that the study is dated and in fact says no such thing. This is where PolitiFact Oregon comes in.
First, we dug up the study and on page 5 we found the relevant pie chart. The pie shows that 50 percent of trips over the bridge are between Clackamas County and Portland; 13 percent of trips are between Clackamas and Washington counties; and 7 percent of trips are between east and west Clackamas County. That adds up to 70 percent of trips either end or begin in Clackamas County.
But wait, here’s the rest of the pie: 17 percent of trips are between the east and west sides of Portland, and 13 percent of trips are between Portland and Washington County. So the pie chart also states that 80 percent of the trips end or begin in Portland.
Both percentages were included in a Feb. 16 story by Yuxing Zheng, The Oregonian’s Clackamas County reporter. So it turns out she added some context from the study -- but it’s a pretty far stretch to say that The Oregonian "debunked" anything.
"We have not debunked it at all," she said, "because it is factually correct."
Now we acknowledge that the 1999 study is old, with traffic figures based on 1994 travel. So we poked around for newer figures and found this: a 2006 semi-update of the 1999 study with 2030 traffic projections. This version projected 76 percent of trips starting or ending in Clackamas County, with 9 percent of trips solely within the county. Trips ending or starting in Multnomah County would account for 79 percent of trips. (This totals more that 100 percent because trips can begin or end in either county.)
We talked to Lee about this, and were rather impressed with his candor in a follow-up email.
"My statement that the Oregonian "debunked" the study rather than the >70% Clackamas traffic may have been worded better," he wrote, adding that he was really bristling at previous media reports that characterized Clackamas County residents as making 70 percent of bridge trips, which is not completely accurate.
For example, The Oregonian published an editorial and a news story in February 2010 about a Portland City Club report, which inaccurately stated that Clackamas County drivers would account for three times the number of trips across the Sellwood Bridge as Multnomah County drivers. The Oregonian corrected that figure in a March story when City Club issued a correction; the March story also stated that 79 percent of traffic would start or end in Multnomah County, and 76 percent would start or end in Clackamas County.
"The impression given to voters has been that Clackamas residents use the Sellwood bridge MUCH more than anyone else so they should pay for it to be replaced," Lee wrote.
We feel for the GOP county chairman. It’s frustrating when statistics are short-handed to the point of being inaccurate. But we have to object to his claim that The Oregonian debunked a study that claimed "more than 70 percent of trips ends or starts in Clackamas County." The March 2010 story simply corrected one figure -- which was retracted by City Club itself -- and added context.
We rate the statement False.
Interview with and email from John Lee, May 6, 2011
Interview with Yuxing Zheng, April 22, 2011
Metro’s Transportation Department, "South Willamette River Crossing Study: Findings and Recommendations Report," May 1999
Metro and Parisi Associates, "Sellwood Bridge and the South Willamette River Crossing Study," Sept. 18, 2006
Clackamas County, May 17, 2011 Election Voters’ Pamphlet
The Oregonian, "Repairing a vital link," Feb. 26, 2010
The Oregonian, "City Club transportation report corrects Sellwood Bridge info," March 15, 2010
City Club of Portland, "Moving Forward: A Better Way to Govern Regional Transportation," March 5, 2010 (report has since been corrected)
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