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Vote likely to determine whether proposed MAX line goes forward.

This story has been updated from its original version.

MAP COURTESY OF THE CITY OF TIGARD - Planners for the Southwest Corridor transit project have not yet identified exact route alignments for the proposed MAX light rail line. They are studying several possible alignments that would serve downtown Tigard.The stage is set for a local election in Tigard that officials say will likely determine the fate of the Southwest Corridor transit project this November.

The Tigard City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to refer a ballot measure to voters asking, in essence, whether they want to allow the city to support and cooperate in the construction of MAX light rail from Portland to downtown Tigard.

The city officially opposes the Southwest Corridor project, as stipulated by a charter amendment voters narrowly approved in March 2014, although officials like Tigard Mayor John L. Cook have participated in planning efforts led by Metro, the regional government. The amendment requires a public vote before the city can formally support it, and a separate vote before the city could raise money for it through taxes or fees.

The measure that will go before voters in November is not a funding measure, councilors noted, and the question of funding consumed most of their discussion Tuesday. The project is estimated to cost as much as $2.8 billion, with about half of that amount anticipated to come from federal grants. The rest would need to be fronted by local and regional sources.

“Half of this project is going to be borne by local partners, and Tigard is a local partner. So this measure suggests that the feds are going to pay for everything, and we all know that that's not true,” Eric Winters, a Wilsonville attorney who drafted the charter amendment language voters approved in 2014, told the City Council during a public hearing that preceded Tuesday evening's vote.

City Council President Jason Snider said he wanted to address Winters' points, although as councilors debated tweaks to the ballot language, he bemoaned the 175-word limit state law places on the summary of the measure in its official ballot title.

“If all the public would like us to be more clear, you should ask the Legislature to change the rules, the 175 words,” he remarked, calling the effort of condensing the summary to meet the limit “a ridiculous task.”

Ultimately, councilors agreed that the summary should include language noting that “regional funding” must be secured along with federal grants, a catch-all phrase they agreed connotes that Tigard will have to contribute to the project's funding but will not be solely responsible for it.

Cook told The Times on Wednesday that voters across the Metro region may be asked to approve a property tax measure to fund the project in 2018.

"Current planning is for a metro regional property tax vote in 2018 to fund this and other road transportation projects," he wrote in an email. "The city has no plans to put out a vote to fund our local share (or take it out of general funds), which would be required under Section 52 of our charter."

The council opted Tuesday not to change ballot language that describes a “0.03%” reduction in road capacity within 5 miles of Tigard, despite critics charging that the number is unclear and relies on a formula that voters cannot easily understand.

MAP COURTESY OF THE CITY OF TIGARD - As envisioned by the regional government Metro, the Southwest Corridor project would construct a MAX light rail line from downtown Portland as far as Bridgeport Village, serving stops in Southwest Portland and Tigard along the way.Opponents of the ballot language were outnumbered at the public hearing by supporters, but they did not mince words about what they characterized as a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead voters.

“The method you used for lane lossage is so preposterous and so dubious, intentionally so — and you all know it,” said Steve Shoppe, a Tualatin resident who said he is “confident” that the city's measure will be rejected in November.

Peter L. Coffey, a consultant with the transportation engineering firm DKS Associates, said the percentage was calculated based on an analysis of current and future traffic patterns along the routes the proposed MAX line is expected to impact. He and Tim Ramis, Tigard's city attorney, noted that the charter amendment approved in 2014 requires the city to quantify how the transit project would impact “the total amount of road capacity.”

“If we look at the entire alignment … the range we're looking at now goes from 1.1 lane miles to 2.6 lane miles (of roadway converted for light rail usage),” Coffey acknowledged. But he added, “That doesn't mean there's a related capacity impact associated with that.”

The City Council agreed to accept Coffey's analysis, which Councilor Mark Woodard described as “very detailed.”

More than a dozen people spoke in support of the ballot language proposed by city staff during the public hearing, including former Tigard mayor and current Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen and state Rep. Margaret Doherty.

“It is vital that Tigard's interests be represented as decisions are made,” Dirksen said. “It is important that this measure be put on the ballot and passed so that Tigard can continue to influence decisions and keep moving forward to support Tigard's future vision.”

Debi Mollahan, chief executive officer of the Tigard Chamber of Commerce, said her organization supports the proposed MAX line.

“This is critical to the success of the larger Southwest Corridor project connecting Portland to Tigard and to Tualatin,” she said.

TriMet officials said this month that if Tigard votes against allowing the city to back the proposed MAX line, the project will very likely be scrapped.

Some supporters said pointedly that by referring this measure to the ballot, the City Council is giving the organizers behind the 2014 charter amendment vote what they asked for: a public up-or-down vote on the Southwest Corridor project.

“The language of this measure gives the citizens of Tigard a simple choice: yes or no on light rail,” said Tigard resident Tom Murphy. “And if we give the proponents of Measure 34-210 the benefit of every doubt, this is the vote that they wanted this city to have.”

Ralph Hughes, another Tigard resident who spoke in support of the ballot language, said, “There is absolutely no reason not to proceed forward with this measure, based on the fact that you have covered the bases of what I consider a poorly written measure or ballot in the first place that even brought us to this point.”

Winters said after the meeting that he was “disappointed” by the council's vote.

“The meaning of the charter is up to interpretation,” he said. “They took what they consider an ambiguity, and rather than ask the voters or the chief petitioners or the people who drafted the measure … they took their preferred definition and hired a professional engineer to say, 'All right, what does road capacity mean to you?' … They're not trying to be transparent. They're trying to obscure the result.”

Winters rejected the idea that the council was constrained by the 175-word limit that had frustrated Snider, saying ballot language about road improvements, housing density and Highway 99W could have been excised altogether.

Winters and Tim Esau, who was the chief petitioner behind the 2014 charter amendment measure, warned in their public testimony about a possible legal appeal of the ballot language. When asked after the meeting whether he plans to file an appeal, Winters said he is discussing that possibility with several others.

Winters also said he has not determined whether he will have an active role in campaigning against passage of the measure this fall.

Editor's note: An original version of this story misnamed Steve Shoppe and Ralph Hughes, who spoke during Tuesday's public hearing. Their names have been corrected, as has Shoppe's city of residence. The story has also been updated with more information from Tigard's mayor on how local and regional funding for the Southwest Corridor project may be provided.

By Mark Miller
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