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Audit warns against using more money for local transit projects

by: FILE PHOTO - A recent audit says Portland needs to start spending an additional $85 million a year on street maintenance. Regional and transit projects such as Southwest Corridor plan through Portland, Tigard and Sherwood have contributed to the backlog of maintenance needs in Portland. Talk about bad timing for the Southwest Corridor Plan. Portland’s city auditor is raising questions about how the city will pay for its share of the plan, just one week before the first public hearing on it.

The Southwest Corridor Plan is studying a new high-capacity transit line from Portland to Sherwood. It has generated public interest and support in Sherwood and other cities in Washington County, including Beaverton, Durham, King City, Tigard and Tualatin. The plan, being developed by Metro, is being pitched to reduce congestion and encourage new investment along Highway 99W.

No cost estimates have been developed for the plan. But a recent audit says Portland needs to start spending an additional $85 million a year during the next 10 years on street maintenance. That’s eight times the current level, an amount the city will be hard-pressed to find. The City Council only approved $115 million in discretionary transportation spending for the current fiscal year.

According to the audit, the additional money is needed because 44 percent of the city’s streets are in “poor” or “very poor” condition. The audit, which was released on Tuesday, says the City Council contributed to the problem by spending discretionary transportation funds on regional and transit projects instead of maintenance.

Even Portland Mayor Charlie Hales — a strong transit supporter who earned the nickname “Streetcar Charlie” when he served on the City Council — was apparently shocked by the findings.

“This audit is incendiary. It’s a wake-up call. It costs far less to maintain streets in good condition than it costs to restore neglected streets. As much as 10 times more. We have to act now,” Hales said Tuesday.

Continuing sacrifice

Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability hosts its first hearing on the city’s share of the corridor plan on Tuesday, Feb. 26. Called the Barbur Concept Plan, it covers much of Southwest Barbur Boulevard from downtown until it becomes Highway 99W near Tigard.

A report to be discussed at the hearing says a new transit line is needed to redevelop Southwest Barbur Boulevard into a more pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare.

“The report’s key finding is that future high capacity transit is a necessary ingredient to making the vision real. Attracting substantial private investment will likely require a significant change to the look and feel of Barbur that only an investment in HCT can deliver,” according to the hearing announcement.

But the city audit blamed spending on regional and transit projects for contributing to the maintenance backlog that threatens the viability of city’s street system, valued at $5 billion. It specifically mentioned the Sellwood Bridge replacement project, the Portland Streetcar, and the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project as examples. According to the audit, in addition to sidewalks, the transit projects all received discretionary transportation funds that could have been spent on street maintenance.

“In recent years, council gave higher priority to funding some investments that are not city responsibilities than they gave to street maintenance,” according to the audit. “We found that this has contributed to deferring maintenance. For example, council provided funds for Milwaukie light rail, streetcar operations and new sidewalks instead of spending more to maintain streets. Council also committed funds for the Sellwood Bridge replacement.”

The findings reflect some of the concerns fueling a voter revolt in Clackamas County that resulted in the replacement of two county commissioners in November. New Chair John Ludlow and Commissioner Tootie Smith actively opposed the $1.49 billion Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project. They argued that the county could not support the $25 million commitment to the project approved by the previous commission. Ludlow defeated Chair Charlotte Lehan, and Smith defeated former Commissioner Jamie Damon, both of whom had support the project.

All of the projects received — or are scheduled to receive — funding from other sources. The federal government is paying half or more of the construction costs of the Portland Streetcar Loop and TriMet’s Milwaukie Orange Line project, which is also supported by the state, TriMet, Metro, Multnomah and Clackamas counties, and the city of Milwaukie.

The Sellwood Bridge replacement is also supported by the state and Multnomah County. Other partners in the Southwest Corridor Plan include the state, Metro, TriMet and Multnomah and Washington counties.

But the city audit strongly warns against continuing to sacrifice street maintenance.

“One effect of the city allowing 44 percent of streets to reach poor or very poor condition is that those streets can no longer be maintained or improved at low cost. In addition to the future cost of rehabilitating or reconstructing those streets, residents pay more in personal driving costs when streets are in poor condition,” according to the audit.

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