Project would add light-rail service to Vancouver

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - After finishing the MAX Orange Line and Tilikum Crossing, TriMet is pushing the region to rebuild the Columbia River bridge to Vancouver and expand light rail there.
After opening the MAX Orange Line on time and nearly $50 million under budget, what’s next for TriMet?

How about restarting the debate over the need for the Columbia River Crossing, the failed I-5 bridge replacement project between Oregon and Washington?

“We haven’t solved the problem. The bridge was built for horses and it rests on Douglas fir pilings in mud in the Columbia River. A state geologist report on the bridge includes the term ‘total collapse’ in case of an earthquake,” says TriMet General Manager Neil McFarlane.

State and local elected officials on both sides of the Columbia River probably do not want to revisit the project, which collapsed because of partisan bickering between the two states, including Republican opposition in the Washington Senate to the light rail line that Oregon lawmakers want included in the project. Approximately $200 million was spent planning the project that was declared dead in 2014.

But McFarlane insists the states need to face the problems that would be created if the bridge fails, whether because of an earthquake or just natural aging.

“The bridge is on the No. 1 economic corridor on the West Coast. We have to get back to it,” McFarlane says.

McFarlane made his comments to the Portland Tribune following his appearance on a Portland City Club panel discussing the future of transit in the Portland region. During his comments, McFarlane noted the TriMet Board of Directors raised the regional transit agency’s payroll tax last week to enhance bus service.

But McFarlane is also part of a growing chorus calling on federal, state and local elected officials to increase funding for all transportation projects, especially because traffic is increasing as the economy improves following the Great Recession. According to the Oregon Department of Transportation, congestion was up 6.3 percent in the Portland region during the first five months of 2015, and all area freeways are at or exceeding capacity.

“The recession hid our mobility problems, but now it’s back with a vengeance,” McFarlane told the longstanding civic organization at its weekly Friday Forum.

New road money stalled

McFarlane’s comments came as Oregon lawmakers are struggling with how to address the state’s transportation funding problems. A package pushed by Gov. Kate Brown during the 2015 Oregon Legislature died as the result of a partisan fight over a bill to reduce the carbon emissions of motor vehicle fuels. The Low Carbon Fuel Standards Act was unanimously supported by Democrats but opposed by all Republicans, who argued it could increase gasoline prices up to 19 cents a gallon without generating any new money for transportation projects. When Democrats declined to reject the bill they had just approved, Republicans declined to supply the necessary votes to increase gas taxes and motor vehicle fees for road, transit, bike and pedestrian improvements.

State lawmakers are continuing to bicker over whether the Oregon Legislature should take the issue up again during the mandatory 35-day session scheduled for next year. Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, says it should. Gov. Brown, a Democrat, says it should act as soon as possible, and she has reactivated a panel originally created by former Gov. John Kitzhaber to develop a long-term plan to pay for transportation projects. At least two of the panel’s six subgroups met over the past two weeks.

One of the panel’s members, state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, wants to know how its work will tie in with that by Brown and the bipartisan group of lawmakers known as the “Gang of Eight” that tried to revise the transportation funding package at the end of the 2015 Oregon legislative session. Johnson was also among the lawmakers who tried to hammer out the deal in closed-door meetings with Brown and a handful of other lawmakers, including state Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, state Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and state Rep. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay. Although their deal failed to pass, Johnson said the group accomplished a lot and lawmakers who previously disagreed on contentious issues changed their minds.

“I certainly don’t think that work product ought to be abandoned,” Johnson says. “There was a sense of possibility.”

Employers want more transit

McFarlane says state and local actions are necessary to move a transportation package along because Congress has not increased federal transportation funding in many years.

“Congress just passed the 37th extension of the federal highway fund,” McFarlane told City Club members.

According to McFarlane, the TriMet Board of Directors is doing its job. The board increased the payroll tax that funds most of the agency’s operation by 1/10th of 1 percent last week. The increase, which takes effect next January, will raise $4.3 million in 2016 and $43 million a year after 10 years. The money will mostly fund enhanced bus service in different parts of the region, developed through meetings with agency staff, community leaders and business associations in TriMet’s service area.

“We have a long history of hearing from businesses with so-called ‘white collar’ jobs — those 8 to 5 jobs — that are typically located near good transit service,” McFarlane said. “But here’s what’s changing. Now we’re hearing from manufacturers who’ve located their businesses based on available land, but now realize that they need transit service to get their workers to their jobs.”

According to McFarlane, such enhancements are essential to meet future transit needs. He said the regional population is predicted to increase by 400,000 people and 260,000 jobs over the next 20 years — the equivalent of four new Hillsboros.

“While we’ll continue to pursue state and federal funding, our region needs to step up and make the investments to keep us moving and our economy growing,” McFarlane said.

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The Capital Insider contributed to this story. The Capital Insider is a subscription newsletter published by the Pamplin Media Group and the EO (East Oregonian) Media Group.