Clackamas County voters sent a largely symbolic message to TriMet on Tuesday night against light rail by voting down a measure authorizing the line from Portland through Milwaukie to Oak Grove, pitting the county at large against North Clackamas residents who voted to support the line in their backyards.

Countywide Measure 3-424 failed by 56.6 to 43.4 percent in early returns.

County Chairman John Ludlow celebrated that the May 21 election results validated the direction of his commission as a referendum against light rail.

“We are going to lean on the legal advice we get from our attorney,” Ludlow said. “In my opinion, there has never been a review of the contract or the supplemental agreement from an outside legal counsel, which would be interesting to see if the TriMet lawsuit holds water.”

However, voters who live closer to the line in the North Clackamas Parks District generally seem to support the line. They voted on Tuesday to authorize a property transaction for light rail by a 55.1 to 44.9 percent margin.

Pat Russell, a community activist who personally voted against the transaction because he favors retaining park ownership and giving an easement to TriMet, saw the two vote results as bellwether for the county’s political future.

“This shows that the North Clackamas area is more progressively minded, and we have more young people who use mass transit,” Russell said. “Not everyone can afford a car, and this will become increasingly true, so we need light rail through this area.”

County Commissioner Paul Savas noted that voters will have to accept the judge’s decision on the lawsuit, whether those voters support the project, or whether they tend to have less affinity for the project in Clackamas County’s outlying areas.

“There is naturally going to be more support for a project in an area that will receive some benefit from the project,” Savas said.

Eleanore Hunter, co-founder of Positively Clackamas, a political action committee in favor of the line, expressed disappointment that Clackamas County commissioners “wasted so much public money on an election in which the outcome has no impact” on the county’s long-standing commitments.

“The county will still make road and signal improvements near the Park Avenue Station, and it is just common sense for the small portion of the Trolley Trail to be sold to TriMet,” Hunter said. “The ballot title said the measure was advisory, so let's stop the nonsense and just get on with completing the project.”

In September, county voters approved Measure 3-401 to require a vote before the county can commit resources to a rail project. In March, Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Deanne L. Darling forced the county to change its “insufficient and unfair” ballot title for Measure 3-424 after a complaint that it gave voters the incorrect belief that their vote could have an impact on Clackamas County’s participation in the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail Transit Project now under construction.

Critics of light rail such as Ludlow and Oak Grove resident Les Poole have been looking forward to the vote to give credence to the county’s side of an ongoing legal battle with the regional transit agency. TriMet officials say that the county’s cooperation has “dissolved” since November’s election of two new county commissioners who oppose the project.

“With voters once again expressing their distaste for the light-rail line, I think the county will be emboldened to press on with their fight against TriMet,” Poole said.

TriMet sued Clackamas County in March claiming that a judge needs to intervene in the county’s delays of property sales and its failure to meet of other contractual obligations with deadlines last year.

Ludlow said the county will continue to be responsive to the wishes of its voters. He argued that TriMet missed plenty of chances to ask voters whether they wanted the line.

Clackamas County has been delaying final project property acquisitions and about $1.3 million in associated road and traffic-signal construction until voters weighed in on the issue. In its lawsuit, TriMet contends that county code does not require public approval of these aspects of the construction.

TriMet promises to complete construction of the 7.3-mile project and have the line opened to the public by September 2015.

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