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UPDATE: Council president responds to request from business organizations to push back November vote on payroll tax-funded measure

PMG FILE PHOTO - TriMet's Orange Line, seen here crossing the Tilikum Bridge, benefitted from stimulus spending after the Great Recession. With the economy again sputtering, regional planners are moving ahead with plans for the next light rail line.

Metro Council President Lynn Peterson has rejected a request from a coalition of business organizations to delay referring a $5 billion regional transportation funding measure to the November ballot.

The coalition sent the Metro Council a letter Wednesday saying the economy is now so bad, many businesses cannot afford the payroll tax that would pay for the projects and programs in the measure. The council is scheduled to vote on the referral next Wednesday, July 15.

Instead, Peterson said the measure is still needed and would help the economy by creating jobs.

"We also understand that we are indeed in unprecedented times and facing challenges and uncertainty about the future. We believe that in order to chart a course in this moment of economic uncertainty we need to help rebuild our transportation system while rebuilding our economy," Peterson wrote.

In its letter, the business organizations said, "We represent thousands of the region's employers, organizations of all sizes and from every part of the region. We are deeply concerned that Metro has not paused to consider if now is the right time, the right mechanism and the right package given the significant economic downturn and major shifts in commuting behaviors."

The letter was signed by the Beaverton Area Chamber of Commerce, the Building Owners & Managers Association of Oregon, the Clackamas County Business Alliance, the Gresham Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center, the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce, the Portland Business Alliance, the Smart Growth Coalition, the Technology Association of Oregon, the Westside Economic Alliance, and the Working Waterfront Coalition.

A number of other organizations joined on Thursday, including the the East Metro Economic Alliance, Oregon Business & Industry, the Portland Metropolitan Association of Realtors, and the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce.

"We urge you to consider whether current changes of the magnitude we are experiencing in our economy require all of us to pause on a new business tax proposal," the letter continues.

In her response, Peterson said the council would change the measure to ease the burden of the tax by delaying its enactment until 2022, phasing it in over a number of years, and exempting businesses with 25 or fewer employees.

At the same time, the council has dropped a $56 a year motor vehicle registration fee that was part of the proposal. The council is considering raising the tax from .6% to .75% to make up for the lost revenue, although it could be phased in over time.

The measure is intended to help fund the Southwest Corridor MAX project and make improvements in transportation corridors throughout the region. Although transit ridership and driving is down because of the pandemic, both Metro and TriMet say the measure — and the projects it will fund — are still needed. They believe the crisis eventually will pass, resulting in many people going out to work, shop and entertain themselves again.

And in the short term, Metro and TriMet say the construction projects and new programs will help the region get through the next few years by creating tens of thousands of new jobs when they are most needed.

The measure is supported by the Getting There Together Coalition, a group of environmental, alternative transportation, affordable housing, and community organization. They say the projects are needed to improve mobility and the environment in the region.

"These recent crises have only magnified issues that people from Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color have known and spoke of for decades: economic and social injustices are also built into our transportation system. These voices have largely gone unheard or ignored in past transportation processes, but we recognize the opportunity we have right now to come together around a community-built plan, to begin to take meaningful action that builds a more equitable transportation system that works for all," the coalition said in a July 7 letter to the council.

Projects and programs in measure

Planning for the new MAX line began many years ago. It was always considered to be part of comprehensive transportation improvements between downtown Portland and the rapidly growing areas of Washington County that includes Tigard and Tualatin. Cities and counties along the route also realized that more affordable housing would be needed to minimize displacement caused by increasing property values, also known as gentrification.

But because the measure will be proposed by a regional government, there is also a need to give voters outside the corridor a reason to vote for it. That provided an opportunity to create a regional transportation improvement program to be funded by the measure. The council has indicated its support for around 150 projects in 16 transportation corridors in all three counties within Metro's jurisdiction.

According to the draft plan, the largest investment would be $975 million to help finance the new MAX line in the Southwest Corridor. The federal government is expected to pay half the cost of the project, currently estimated at $2.8 billion.

Other investments for projects and planning in the draft plan include: $520 million along Tualatin Valley Highway; $520 million along 82nd Avenue; $280 million along McLoughlin Boulevard; $270 million along Burnside Street; $220 million in the Central City; $200 million along Southwest 185th Avenue; $180 million in the Highway 212/Sunrise Corridor; $150 million in the Clackamas-to-Columbia/181st Corridor; $90 million along Southeast Powell Boulevard; $90 million along 162nd Avenue; $90 million along 122nd Avenue; $55 million for the Albina Vision project in the Rose Quarter area; $54 million along Highway 43; $12 million along Highway 217; and $3.5 million along Highway 99W.

Also likely to be approved are $250 million per year for transportation-related programs over the next 20 years.

If the measure is approved by voters at the Nov. 3 general election, Metro is likely to issue revenue bonds before the fee and tax become effective to begin work on some of the projects as soon as possible.

You can read the updated business coalition's letter here.

You can read Metro Council President Lynn Peterson's reply here.

This is a developing story and will be updated when more information is available.

You can find more information about the measure here.


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