Critics of SW MAX line question plans to pay for it
What could possibly go wrong with plans to build a new light rail line between downtown Portland and Tualatin?
Two things, according to a couple of local critics: Federal funding won't be forthcoming for half the estimated $2.7 billion cost of the project, and local voters won't pass a measure to pay the other half.
State Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, who lost her re-election bid in November, thinks there's no way federal dollars will flow to TriMet for its 12-mile light rail line.
"I just don't think it's a sure thing," she said. "I really don't. Just the political reality of such a big-dollar project coming to Oregon when you have Governor Brown out there with her 'Resist Trump" T-shirts or whatever, it's just not helpful."
"Whether you like the president or not, he is the president and the adversarial approach this state's leaders have taken towards him won't help when it comes to federal funding for light rail," Parrish said recently. "Democrats may have won the House, but Republicans still control the Senate. So the reality is that, politically. some of the projects they want to do in this state — light rail, tolling — are not going to be funded from Washington, D.C.
"There's a local appetite for this, but there's no federal appetite," Parrish said.
John Charles, president and CEO of the Cascade Policy Institute, also opposes light rail but disagrees with Parrish about federal funding for a new line.
"I would never underestimate TriMet's ability to get a large amount of federal funding. The light rail-industrial complex in Portland is a formidable machine," he told The Connection in an email. "Frankly, the Federal Transit Administration and other agencies may not be influenced all that much by who is president. Unless Trump euthanizes the entire agency (doubtful), it will continue to shovel taxpayer money out the door because that's the source of its power. And as long as they do it, TriMet will play the game and get more than its fair share of the pork."
Any effort to secure federal funds for Southwest light rail would follow a local vote on funding the project. The tentative plan is to present voters with a transit funding measure in November 2020. The question to voters inside Metro's borders will be whether they want to pay more in property taxes to fund light rail. How much more has not been estimated.
"I don't think voters in the suburbs will go for it," Parrish predicted. "People voted to fund affordable housing because they see the need. But do they really see the need for a new $3 billion light rail line coming down to their neighborhoods?
"This is coming from the get-you-out-of-your-car people, and I just don't see suburban soccer moms saying we're going to give up our cars. And they are the ones who need to get vocal about their opposition," Parrish said.
For Charles, the ballot may offer the best shot at derailing Southwest light rail. "I think raising the local match is the weaker part of TriMet's strategy," he said. "They haven't won a regional ballot measure in over 25 years."
Charles, who has opposed various TriMet money measure in the past, thinks this light rail "ask" may be one too many.
"The timing of the proposed 2020 bond measure is a bit odd," he said. "Metro decided to do three big asks in a row: low-income housing in 2018, more parks land in 2019, and a transportation "Christmas tree" bond measure in 2020 — with the Southwest Corridor project being the 'tree' and a bunch of other stuff (yet to be finalized) as the ornaments. And the last one will be the biggest by far. I think voter fatigue may be a factor by then."
According to the latest newsletter for the Southwest Corridor Light Rail Project, "In November 2020, voters may decide a regional funding measure which could fund about half the project. In early 2023, the project will compete for funding through the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts program."
For more information, go to swcorridorplan.org and cascade policy.org.