Our Opinion: Don't let light rail bottleneck Barbur
Long before the first shovel of earth is overturned, the proposed Southwest Corridor MAX light-rail proposal already is $460 million over budget.
As a result, planners are contemplating saving a few bucks by "skinnying" Southwest Barbur Boulevard.
That would be a major mistake.
The budget brouhaha doesn't come as a shock to anyone who pays attention to such massive, long-term public projects. Vagaries such as inflation, construction costs, environmental impacts and unforeseeable exigencies always befuddle the arcane art of guessing the cost of big, years-long projects straddling multiple cities and counties.
The funding for the project is not yet secure. If it comes together, it will be a blend of a voter-backed bond measure, state and local dollars and a huge amount of federal funding.
If all that happens, the light-rail project would connect Portland — right around Portland State University — with Tigard and possibly Tualatin, with route planners eyeing Bridgeport Village as the line's terminus.
Part of the route would take the trains down Barbur Boulevard, which is also signed as Highway 99W. And that's where the budget debate begins to get scary.
Barbur Boulevard began as a state highway around a century ago and has evolved into a major, four-lane street getting residents and freight to and from Portland and Southeast Washington County.
As it exists today, Barbur Boulevard is too narrow for the modern demands of a major thoroughfare. It has too few sidewalks. There are too few bus turnout lanes. It lacks safe bike lanes.
So the proposed light-rail plan, as laid out in 2018, would vastly increase the capacity of Barbur Boulevard. The plan would call for train tracks and train stops down the middle of the road, two lanes heading northeast into Portland, two lanes heading southwest into Tigard, bus turnout lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks on each side.
All of which would be tremendously expensive.
So earlier this month, planners began hedging their bets. Maybe they could keep Barbur Boulevard in a "skinnier" mode. That would mean purchasing far less land via the process of eminent domain, which would save big bucks.
But the goal of any transit project should be to make it easier for people to get from Point A to Point B. And making Barbur Boulevard a narrow bottleneck would be a disastrous decision.
We know that Washington County is growing by leaps and bounds. That's where a vast majority of the region's planned population growth will occur. If the metro area gets another light-rail line, that would be terrific. But even if that happens, the majority of commuters will use cars. And making Barbur Boulevard a choke point will greatly impact all transportation for that entire southwest sector of the metro area.
Cars will be forced onto the adjacent Interstate 5, which can be clogged with traffic now. Or they will be forced into the neighborhoods, along Multnomah Boulevard or Taylors Ferry Road. Both are crowded now during rush hour. Turning Highway 99W into a sclerotic clot would only make that problem worse, forcing even more commuters onto neighborhood streets.
No, the wisdom of the original Southwest Corridor design is that everyone agrees Barbur Boulevard is insufficient today and needs a major upgrade. The influx of federal money and voter-approved money would make it possible to build a world-class light-rail line, and also improve automobile traffic on that major artery.
Adding the light-rail line but making Barbur Boulevard more difficult for driving wouldn't improve transportation in the Southwest Corridor. And that's the goal.
The dollar figures will continue to fluctuate as the project draws nearer. Good planners always anticipate that. Options will continue to be bandied about right up to the time the voters get their say and the feds are asked to pony up.
But one of those options should not include a skinny, tight and poorly designed Barbur Boulevard.
Let's remember the essential purpose of any major transportation proposal: to improve transportation. If you lose site of the end goal, you might as well not build the thing at all.
We don't need TriMet or the Metro regional government to design a narrow, dangerous, bottlenecked Barbur Boulevard.
We've already got one of those.
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