Our Opinion: Spend enough to get light rail right
This newspaper makes its opinion known when government agencies make mistakes, or when elected officials break promises.
So when several elected officials and agencies, collectively, reach a good decision, we also should speak up.
That's what has happened regarding the proposed new light rail line linking Portland and Southeast Washington County. The price tag for the proposed line was growing, and options had been bandied about to cut costs.
Two of the options were bad policy. Both have been sidelined.
It is important to note why we're spending so much time — and this newspaper is spending so much ink and newsprint space — discussing the Southwest Corridor light rail line.
Washington County is leading the region's population boom. The county is expected to grow by 300,000 people in the next couple of decades. Cities that have requested expansion of the urban growth boundary — the invisible line around Portland and its suburbs beyond which urban development is not allowed — include Beaverton, Hillsboro, Wilsonville and even little King City, a town that is not destined to be "little" for long.
So a new mass transit option for the southern part of Washington County, to complement the northernly MAX Red Line to Beaverton and Blue Line to Hillsboro, is badly needed.
Any project that runs between cities and counties will be, by definition, expensive. And this summer, we learned that the proposed $2.4 billion project was about $462 million over that mark. Which led to discussions about how to save money.
Tigard Mayor Jason Snider began bandying about a proposal to shorten the line, making it run from near Portland State University to Tigard, rather than taking it all the way to Bridgeport Village and Tualatin.
Others talked about a proposal to "skinny" Southwest Barbur Boulevard. The original plan had been to greatly widen that tight corridor, designed in the 1920s and far too narrow for today's modern city.
Read our Oct. 17, 2019, editorial arguing that regional planners need to change their approach to Highway 99W.
The original proposal had been to build a light rail line with stations, plus two car lanes heading into Portland, two lanes heading into Washington County, bus turnout spots, bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides.
We are pleased, now, to hear that the light rail line — funding for which is expected to go to voters in November 2020 — will be neither shortened nor "skinnied."
Shortening the line would have made it tougher for people in Washington County to use it, which would mean more cars on the road. If it takes you 45 minutes or more to get a light rail stop, you're not likely to use the light rail. And that, after all is the very purpose of it — to get cars off the streets and highways.
Making a more narrow Barbur Boulevard would have been a bad decision for the opposite reason. Yes, it is hoped that some people would use the new light rail line, but nobody expects that everyone will use it. There will still be car traffic. And a proposal to narrow Barbur Boulevard would have created terrible traffic woes, which would have pushed more cars onto neighborhood streets such as Southwest Multnomah Boulevard and Taylors Ferry Road.
That's the problem now. Who needs a solution that maintains the problem?
The mayors of Tigard and Tualatin got together and agreed to drop both the shortening and the narrowing of the light rail proposal. TriMet, the transit agency, is in agreement.
And yes, that means more money will be needed.
We are pleased to serve as watchdogs for government overspending. But big projects are expensive and should be done right. A new light rail line crossing a county line is a big-ticket affair.
Better to do it right than to do it on the cheap.
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