The first thing to say about the Westside Bypass proposal, pitched by state Rep. Richard Vial, is that it's innovative, forward-thinking and ambitious. Only a few weeks into his rookie year in the Legislature, and already Vial is looking like a strong new voice of leadership for the Republican party, for his district — which includes a wide swath of Washington County — and for Oregon.
The second thing to say about the Westside Bypass proposal is that it's a flawed concept that should never get a hearing.
Vial's House Bill 3231 would allow cities and counties to create a special district to do the planning, and to figure out the funding, for a new freeway that would loop around the west side of the Portland metro area, taking traffic off Interstate 5 south of Portland and reconnecting with a highway — perhaps Highway 26, north of Hillsboro and Forest Grove — somewhere in Washington County.
The bypass also could be the state's first toll-funding highway. And the first owned and maintained by a private company.
As far as Oregon is concerned, these ideas are as innovative as they are controversial. That didn't scare off Vial, who was elected to his seat last November. Most Oregon politicians would rather dance a samba in the middle of a freeway at rush hour than utter the words "toll road." Yes, toll roads are common in the rest of the country, and around the world. But here? Lawmakers would rank it right up there with privatizing Oregon beaches on the list of third-rail policies — "third rail," as in "touch it and die."
So a round of applause for Vial who shrugged off that conventional wisdom. He's right to bring up the option of a toll road, and voters would be crazy if they punish him for it.
That said, Vial's proposal to create a special district falls into the trap of putting transportation policy ahead of land-use policy, urban and rural reserves policy, and the principle of locally elected bodies having their say on major infrastructure projects going through their own communities.
Once cities and counties voted to create this special district, they would lose oversight of it. It's a Sorcerer's Apprentice construct that could run roughshod over the very cities and counties that created it. It could have bonding authority, thus gobbling up much of the available transportation funding in the region, rather than spending that money on projects deemed to be priorities by city, county and state leaders — priorities such as Highway 217 from Tigard to Cedar Hills, connecting Interstate 5 with Highway 26 in Washington County, or widening Interstate 205, where it narrows from three to two lanes in each direction.
Those are the appropriate priorities for transportation projects.
What if the profit from the tolls would be enough to avoid bonding to pay for the highway? That's possible. But what if it's not? Would a private company, balancing the need for profit and the expenses of maintaining a highway, keep the bypass in good shape? And if not, would the state be expected to step in and do so for the sake of safety? Unknown.
Where would this Westside Bypass run? Again, unknown. It could plow through Washington County, or through any of the towns and cities, with little or no say by local elected officials. It could slice through rural reserves — land now protected from urban sprawl — outside the metro area's urban growth boundary. On at least one map, it could follow Cornelius Pass over the West Hills — does anyone think Cornelius Pass in winter is a good place for a major highway?
Finally, the proposal breaks the rule that land-use planning must take precedence over transportation planning. It's all good and well to come up with a plan for getting from Point A to Point B, but first you need good planning and policy for Point A and Point B. How you get between those places comes next.
Putting transportation policy over land-use policy was one of the fatal flaws of the Columbia River Crossing project, which fell apart in 2013. Proponents said, let's spend several billion dollars to build a new bridge, and later we'll figure out the impact it would have on Portland and Vancouver. No wonder support for the crossing was so lackluster.
Rep. Vial deserves enthusiastic applause for being gutsy and innovative. But his Westside Bypass proposal should die without a hearing.
And meanwhile, we can't wait to see his next big proposal.