Our Opinion: Highway 99W needs to be enhanced, not strangled
Right now, there are two major disputes over regional transportation routes in Southwest Portland, Tigard and Tualatin.
We wrote a couple weeks ago about our vexation with regional planners not seeing the forest for the trees on one of those projects. Cutting lane capacity on 99W — a.k.a. Southwest Barbur Boulevard — between Tigard and downtown Portland in order to make way for a MAX light rail line is misguided and would have dire ramifications for traffic in the region. Of course, that assumes it doesn't give light rail opponents all the ammunition they need to sink a transportation bond measure likely to be put to voters in 2020.
And then there's the other dispute that is shaping up over whether Highway 99W through Washington County deserves to be treated as a high-priority transportation corridor. The city governments of Tigard, Tualatin, King City and Sherwood, all of which either abut or straddle the highway, think it should be. The regional government Metro doesn't seem to share that opinion.
Read our editorial from Oct. 3, 2019, about the idea of removing travel lanes along Southwest Barbur Boulevard in Portland.
Let's try a little bit of game theory.
Regional planners are openly considering the possibility of limiting Highway 99W in Southwest Portland to one travel lane in either direction.
Effectively, that means replacing one lane each way with MAX tracks, instead of building the light rail line along Barbur Boulevard while maintaining its current traffic capacity, which has been the stated plan up until now.
Why are planners even discussing the idea of further cramping Barbur Boulevard, which is already one of the region's most frustrating, frequently congested urban highways?
Cost overruns — the bane of many a government project — have jeopardized project officials' long-held goal of building the new MAX line all the way out to Tualatin. It's set to terminate at Bridgeport Village. But planners now say in order to reach Bridgeport Village, they will have to find hundreds of millions of dollars in savings elsewhere along the route. Sacrificing lane capacity on Barbur Boulevard doesn't get them all the way there. But for them, it's a starting point.
Don't get us wrong: We understand why officials want the line to get to Bridgeport Village. Since the MAX wouldn't directly serve Washington Square mall in Tigard, Bridgeport Village would be the top destination for shopping and entertainment along the new line. At least in theory, it would drive ridership outside of peak commuter hours, especially on weekends.
It also brings MAX into another city, Tualatin, and places it at the doorstep of Lake Oswego and tiny Durham. It could have knock-on effects on bus ridership and connectivity in Tualatin, where some city officials — including Mayor Frank Bubenik — have long complained about being poorly served by TriMet.
So, clearly, for policymakers and businesses in the Bridgeport Village and Lake Grove areas, getting the MAX out to Bridgeport Village is a major goal.
Unless officials can find close to a billion dollars by digging around beneath their couch cushions, that means making some cuts along the way, and that probably means bad things for Barbur Boulevard.
Next year's transportation bond measure will likely combine money for the Southwest Corridor MAX line with other "regional transportation investments," including improvements along certain highways and arterials. Metro has designated Tualatin Valley Highway as one of those Tier 1 corridors. But up to this point, it's refused to give Pacific Highway — the stretch of Highway 99W through Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood — the same designation.
Not surprisingly, city officials in the southwest suburbs — including some of the same officials who want to see MAX come to Tualatin — are crying foul. That highway carries tens of thousands of vehicle trips every day. You don't need to be a transportation planner to see the highway could use some help with traffic flow. Just try driving from Southwest 124th Avenue in Tualatin to Highway 217 in Tigard during the afternoon commute.
Highway 99W is in need of multimodal support, too. Stretches of the highway lack bicycle lanes and safe sidewalks. Along the north side of the Tigard Triangle, pedestrians walking the narrow strip of sidewalk on either side of the highway should probably avoid stretching out their left arm, lest it get taken off by a passing car or truck.
Within the Metro area, Highway 99W directly serves five cities: Portland, Tigard, King City, Tualatin and Sherwood. That's not counting Newberg, which isn't part of Metro but is still generally considered a suburb or bedroom community of Portland.
It seems pretty obvious to us that Highway 99W should qualify for a significant chunk of bond dollars. But then again, if Metro agrees that Highway 99W is a top-priority transportation corridor that's worthy of investment, that would seem to run counter to the idea of slashing traffic capacity further up the highway to shave down the exploding costs of the Southwest Corridor MAX line.
This editorial board has generally been supportive of the light rail project. We'd like to see a low-emission, high-capacity transit option in the southwest suburbs. We applauded the decision of Tigard voters three years ago after they decided, narrowly, to give the OK for their city government to participate in the MAX project.
But if Metro is going to pitch next year's bond measure as a comprehensive package to pay for better transportation in the Portland area, it needs to back up its big talk. Putting in a MAX line doesn't help Highway 99W. Even light rail supporters acknowledge that it won't do much to take cars off the road. And sacrificing Highway 99W on the altar of MAX would be a cynical, self-serving gambit. It might help check a box for transit planners, but it would be bad for people who live and work in the Southwest Corridor.
It's time for the regional government to do right by the people in our area, keep the faith with Tigard, and put resources into improving Highway 99W — not making it even worse.
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