Regional traffic relief on legislative docket
"Can anyone here tell me when the last freeway was built here?" House Rep. Richard Vial (R-Wilsonville) asked the audience at the April 20 town hall meeting at Wilsonville City Hall. "It's been 37 years since the last major highway was built here in Oregon."
With the Portland metro area's population densifying and new housing developments popping up, the state's new transportation package along with Vial's initiatives to ease the region's congestion are robust — but neither will come cheap.
At a town hall hosted at Wilsonville City Hall April 20, three Republican legislators — Sen. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer), Rep. Richard Vial and Rep. Bill Kennemer (R-Oregon City) — came to give an update on what's happening this session in Salem. During Vial's presentation, covering budgeting concerns, he revealed elements of the transportation package that the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization have been working on. Thus far, the transportation package is anticipated contain roughly $5 billion worth of projects over the next 10 years, which will likely be funded by a combination of increased gas taxes, vehicle registration fees and a new vehicle excise tax.
The region's traffic problems aren't a new phenomenon. Leadership in the City of Wilsonville, including Mayor Tim Knapp and former Mayor Charlotte Lehan, has a history of advocating for I-5 congestion relief at forums and conferences at the metro and state levels. But to receive funding for major road projects, studies must first be conducted to assess the value and effectiveness of a proposed project. Yet, studies cost money and Vial said that finding funding for existing roads is already tricky.
According to Vial, the state currently can't afford all of the preservation, maintenance and seismic-related projects necessary over the next 20 years. To fund these projects, the state gas tax would require an additional, huge raise of $.54 per gallon, additional taxation or even tolling. But Vial said that progress only comes with investment and funding road maintenance or the creation of new roads won't come cheap.
On April 24, Vial met with Knapp, Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway and Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle to talk legislative priorities at Metro's Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT). At the meeting, Vial said that it became clear that relieving congestion will require widening I-5 through the Rose Quarter, widening I-205 from Stafford Road to the Abernethy Bridge, and widening OR-217 south of Beaverton — all of which are addressed in the pending transportation package.
"But none of those things are really going to solve it and Wilsonville is really at the epicenter of it," Vial said.
Even prior to the April 24 meeting, as a member of JPAC, Knapp has been closely involved in the region's traffic struggles and penned a April 19 letter to Vial urging him to support an South Metro I-5 Corridor Study. The study would look at a range of transportation issues and create potential solutions for traffic along the I-5 South corridor from Salem, past Wilsonville to Portland.
"Traffic congestion in the specific South Metro I-5 Corridor stretch between I-5/Boone Bridge at Wilsonville past I-205 to Highway 217 has reached epic proportions with the end of the Great Recession and the population boom being experienced by the greater Portland and North Willamette Valley regions," the letter said. "A recently completed, legislatively funded Transportation Futures Study by Washington County identified several promising investments, including advancing study of the South Metro I-5 Corridor, which is reaching peak traffic"handling capacity. We believe that such a study would need to look at multiple solutions to address the varying needs of different highway users, as well as potential land-use issues and funding resources."
As mentioned in the letter, land use plays a pivotal role in traffic problems and solutions in the region. With a history of land-use law as a lawyer, Vial said he suspects that the traffic in the region has hit an all-time high in the last four to five years due to development, which is only ramping up for the future.
According to Vial, Sherwood is the fastest growing city in the region, boasting a recently expanded urban growth boundary (UGB) and anticipating between 8,000 to 10,000 new homes within the next few years. Hot on Sherwood's heels are the nearly completed, several thousand-home River Terrace neighborhood being built near Scholls Ferry and Roy Rogers Roads, the in-progress development zone simply referred to as South Hillsboro, with an anticipated 20,000 new homes, and Copper Mountain area that's planning on adding high density, mixed-use properties somewhere in the 15,000 homes range in the next few years.
"There's also a little area called Frog Pond just up here to the north," Vial said at the April 20 town hall. "We'd love to see that come into the UGB since one of the things that Wilsonville needs is more residential properties so that more folks can live here and work here."
The problem with these developments is that they will bring additional traffic onto roads with numerous bottlenecks and capacity issues, as shown in the 2013 Corridor Bottleneck Operations Study (CBOS). Vial said that making lasting changes will require "hard choices" financially through tolls or taxation, but that going forward, additional roads and highways will need to be added to support the added volume of traffic.
"We all know that the traffic has gotten so much worse in the last couple of years," Vial said. "But ODOT is a very big, very heavily burdened institution/bureaucracy with so many things on its plate that taking on a project, like building a highway, is just overwhelming to them and hasn't been done as a result."
TRANSPORTATION PACKAGE FUNDING
The upcoming transportation package that the state legislature is currently working on contains a myriad of bottleneck-relieving and highway-widening projects throughout the Portland metro area. To fund these projects, the legislature is proposing a 50-30-20 split between the state, counties and cities, respectively.
For the state's estimated $1 billion contribution, funds will come from an additional $.07-$.09 gas tax increase, additional $15 vehicle registration fee in addition other possible taxation. Counties and cities have not yet determined how they would fund the package if it is passed.