Back in the Nineties Multnomah neighborhood activists decided Job One was fixing Capitol Highway

PHOTO BY BILL GALLAGHER - Chris Lyons stands at the south end of the Multnomah Bridge.  This will be the starting point for the major work on Capitol Highway.Vera Katz was the Mayor of Portland, John Kitzhaber the Governor of Oregon and Bill Clinton the President when some citizen volunteers in SW Portland decided that the absolute number one priority for local road improvements was fixing Capitol Highway between SW Garden Home and Taylors Ferry Road. The year was 1996.

Ideological descendants of those original activits and some of the originals never gave up. As a result, at this time next year work is set to begin transforming that less-than-a-mile stretch of highway.

Where there is now an unpaved forbidding road for pedestrians, runners and bicyclists there will eventually be protected sidewalks and bike lanes on both side of the Highway. And there will still be one lane of vehicle traffic in each direction.

One of those citizen activists who refused to abandon this project is Chris Lyons. About three years ago as Chair of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association Committee he formed yet another group with a long name: the SW Capitol Highway Subcommittee of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association.

This new Committee had one goal: to make the improvemnts on Capitol Highway a reality. Lyons says the project had gone through several "fits and starts" since 1996 and he knew it would take a jolt from below, "Previously it had been a top-down approach rather than a grass roots approach. So we hit the ground running," he recalled

With a corps of volunteers he canvassed the neighborhood that would be most affected. Two hundred neighbors became part of his group and at least 30 people were showing up at every meeting it held.

One of, if not the bigges,t barrier, had been the cost of the project. Then its backers got a break when Portland voters in May 2016 narrowly approved a ten-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike. That lead to the formation of the Fixing Our Streets Fund. (The gas tax money is how the current Vermont Street paving project is bring funded.)

"We got about a three million dollar earmark secured in the revenues from the Fixing Our Streets gas tax. We worked with (then-Councilman) Steve Novick and his staff convincing them that the Capitol Highway Project was a long time coming and had to be prioritized," he recalled.

Some other important pieces of the budget came together as the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services and Water Bureau got involved to upgrade the stormwater system and some pipes along Capitol Highway."

The gas tax passing was the single biggest element in moving the project towards completion, he says, but there was aslo some help from Salem. Not a lot of money, a couple of million, was earmarked by the Legislature for the project but Govenor Kate Brown vetoed that spending late in the session. She contended the money should have been included in a huge Transportation Plan budget passed earleir in the session.

Lyons says support for overturning her veto and saving the State funding was immediate. "Supporters came out of the woodwork. Even Congressman Earl Blumenaur, who had walked that stretch of Captiol HIghway for himself when he was on City Council, lobbied trhe Governor. They told her there was no way we couldn't do this project," said Lyons.

She saw their point and the funding was saved.

So a year from now the work will begin. You'll probably see crews of workers along that stretch of Highway getting the project "shovel ready" between now and then. It is scheduled to be completed by November 2020. The current estimated cost is $25 million. The gas tax passed in 2016, which is making this possible, will "sunset", that is go away, at the end of 2020.

Lyons is satisfied that it will really happen this time. "The 90% design plan will be ready in February. It's high time to have a safe roadway for everybody."

(This is the first in a series of articles each month on the SW Capitol HIghway Project as design work continues and construction approaches. Citizens who persevered through three decades to get this project going wil be featured.)

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