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Southwest Corridor planners push back federal study


New focus needed in light of Tigard, Tualatin votes

Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO - Planners for a possible high capacity transit line from Portland to Tigard and Tualatin have switched gears, and say it's time to decide whether light rail or rapid bus service is the answer.
Plans to build a new transit line from Portland to Tualatin are being pushed back a year-and-a-half for further study.

At its meeting on Monday, the Southwest Corridor Plan Steering Committee — a group of mayors, county commissioners and representatives from TriMet, Metro and the Oregon Department of Transportation — voted to push back a federally mandated study of the project for more than a year so that it can narrow its focus to a single idea.

The decision comes after residents in Tigard and Tualatin passed ballot initiatives earlier this year banning the cities from moving forward on projects without a public vote. King City voters passed a similar measure in 2012.

The Southwest Corridor Plan has been in the works for years. The Metro-led project calls for a series of transportation upgrades to the area in the next several years, including a plan to bring either a MAX light-rail line or Eugene-style rapid bus service to Portland, Tigard and Tualatin.

The committee was supposed to move ahead in June with an Environmental Impact Study — an intense, years-long look at how the line would impact everything from wildlife to the local economy — but pushed the decision in order to decide on which plan to move forward with: light rail or rapid bus service.

“It will save us significant local dollars by only studying the choice that we heard the people want to put in place,” said Malu Wilkinson, principal regional planner at Metro. “It’s a very costly process. There used to be federal funding for it, but there isn’t anymore.”

Photo Credit: FILE PHOTO - Under charter amendments approved in Tigard, Tualatin and King City, voters must choose whether or not to bring a MAX light rail line or rapid bus line to their cities. This has caused planners to rethink their strategy about the project, since they require wide-spread public support before the line can be built.

Narrowing down options

Commissioners agreed to take 18 months to look at transportation needs in each of the cities — Tigard, Tualatin, Sherwood, Durham, King City, Portland, Lake Oswego and Beaverton — to help it make a decision whether to study either light rail or rapid bus.

To do that, the project is switching gears.

The Southwest Corridor project is larger than a new transit line. The project calls for improvements across the cities, adding bike and walking paths, widening roads and improving the entire transit infrastructure.

Cities submitted a list of road and highway improvement projects early in the process, that it hoped to accomplish as part of the Southwest Corridor Plan.

Those plans were never funded, Wilkinson told The Times on Monday, and the committee has spent the past year focused almost entirely on the high-capacity transit side of the project.

“We have been more focused on narrowing down where it might go, rather than what it might be,” Wilkinson said.

Over the next year-and-a-half, planners will see which of those road and highway projects can be funded and look at which high-capacity transit plan will work in the context of its transportation needs.

“Anyone who lives and works in the Southwest Corridor knows that one solution is not the answer,” Wilkinson said. “It will take multiple solutions to begin addressing the challenges within our community.”

The project essentially re-orders the entire Southwest Corridor project, putting a priority on fixing local transportation issues ahead of choosing between light rail or rapid bus service.

The committee use that information to decide between light rail or rapid bus and move forward with planning its alignment, as well as its road, highway, bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

Then, and only then, will they begin the years-long environmental impact assessment.

“For a majority of the time (we have been studying this project), we weren’t even talking about high-capacity transit,” said Craig Dirksen, Metro councilor and former Tigard mayor. “We were talking about the transportation system as a whole. We identified a list of projects … before we ever talked about high-capacity transit. The question now is how do we move forward and do those things, like road and highway improvements and enhance our local transit — things that need to be done first — before we can anticipate a high-capacity transit line.”

'We want to hear from people'

The Southwest Corridor project will undergo a major public relations campaign to spread the word to citizens about the project.

The project needs the public on board, since Tigard, Tualatin and King City will have to gain voter approval before the biggest portion of the project — a MAX light-rail or rapid-bus line — can ever see the light of day.

Planners will also do a corridor-wide assessment for how transportation investments might impact travel time, congestion and other factors across the region.

“How can you vote on a project if you don’t know what it is?” Wilkinson said. “We want to hear from people who live there, work there, the institutions and employers about how they get around and invest in the areas that make a difference to everybody. And use those places to focus the conversation on different transportation investments and high-capacity transit choices in each area.”

This isn’t the first time the steering committee has pushed back making a decision to between light rail or rapid bus.

Last year, the committee decided not to choose between the two options, instead saying it would move ahead with both options simultaneously and decide later what the best transit option would be.

“Part of the reason for that was because the choice between which mode best served the needs of the people wasn’t ready to be made,” Wilkinson said. “We have really designed the next 18 months to get us to be ready to make that choice.”

Not everyone is pleased about the extension. Tim Esau, the chief petitioner for the Tigard ballot measure blocking the project, said planners were “grasping at straws” to keep the project alive following Tigard, Tualatin and King City’s ballot measures restricting the committee's power.

“It boggles my mind that they spent two-plus years planning and taking public comment, and now they need another 18 months to figure out what to submit?" he said. "How much will that cost us? That extra time that they spent trying to shove a rail system in could have been spent adding a third lane onto Highway 217 that actually serves some people. It seems so disingenuous for them to go on about ‘addressing the traffic needs of the future’ when they even can’t address traffic needs of today.”

The steering committee's next meeting is set for February.