What once seemed unthinkable is now on the table as TriMet considers the option of shortening the proposed SW MAX line and having it only run between Tigard and downtown Portland. The plan until now has been to run the line 12 miles between Portland and Bridgeport Village in Tualatin.
At the behest of Tigard Mayor Jason Snider, a member of the Steering Committee for the SW Corridor Light Rail Project, TriMet staff will spend the next seven weeks revisiting what's called the "Minimum Operable Segment," or what the region can afford, and reporting back on the impact of funding a light rail line that would be shorter by about 3.5 miles and have two fewer stations.
Although the light rail project is more than a year from seeking voter approval, it's projected cost is currently $462 million more than the money that Tri Met is counting on to be available to build it. Initially, the cost was pegged at $2.375 billion. But the latest estimate is $2.84 billion, a difference of $465 million. The eventual cost would be shared by the Federal Transportation Administration, local voters and local government partners, such as Portland, Washington County, TriMet, Metro and the State of Oregon.
Mayor Snider told members of the Steering Committee, which oversees development of the project, that they have some "hard choices" to make.
"Skinnying it up is a choice. So is shortening it. Which one will do the most good for the people and places in this corridor? That's a question for every member of the CAC (Citizens Advisory Committee) and this Steering Committee.'" he said in a prepared statement, meaning certain features of the light rail line could be eliminated to cut costs ("skinnying"), or the line could be shortened.
"We have always known that getting to Bridgeport was the project's goal. But it was always a goal, never a given," Snider said.
Light rail has been a sensitive issue with Tigard voters, who once voted to forbid their city from spending a dime on the project. But that vote was later reversed by an exceedingly narrow margin. Snider says he's been willing to settle for a smaller light rail station in Tigard, but that now with the projected funding shortage, he's not so sure.
"We determined that it would be unfair for Tigard to insist on an appropriately-located downtown station if that location made it harder to reach Bridgeport. But if Bridgeport is no longer the terminus, what then? Don't we all want the project to cause more affordable housing, walking and biking and higher transit ridership? Or do we want a Bridgeport terminus at all costs?" he asked.
Snider said he favors "a shorter project, not a skinnier one," and that, "Tigard voters would welcome a light rail line that terminates in Tigard."
Washington County's representative on the Steering Committee, Commissioner Roy Rogers, has said publicly that if a proposed light rail line doesn't go all the way to Bridgeport Village, the county's $75 million contribution to the project would be threatened.
Rogers said at the July 23 meeting that he had met with Mayor Snider to talk about shortening the light rail line and is willing to reassess his position, but that the Chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners is "insistent that the line go all the way to Bridgeport."
After the meeting, Snider said of Washington County's stance, "They're willing to evaluate it (terminating in Tigard instead of Tualatin), especially in a project in which we're $460 million over what we can afford. So everything's got to be on the table," he said.
The head of the Steering Committee, Tri Met General Manger Doug Kelsey, said in a project this big, reassessing options is a "natural part of the process" and reiterated five times that he is "still optimistic" the line will extend to Bridgeport.
"The north star of this project is to go to Bridgeport. The next couple of months is going to be very important. If we shorten the line (and lose potential passengers) revenue is lost and we are non-competitive for federal funding," he said. Federal funding is partly based on estimates of how many people will ride the light rail line.
The Steering Committee, made up of elected and appointed leaders, will receive a report from staff on the ramifications of a shorter light rail line at its September meeting and is expected to vote on the issue in October. Voters within Metro boundaries will more than likely see a multi-billion dollar transportation funding measure in November 2020. TriMet is hoping to get the federal government to pay half the eventual cost of the project ($1.25 billion) with millions more coming from the City of Portland ($75 million), Washington County ($75 million), TriMet ($75 million), Metro ($850 million if voters approve the funding measure) and the State of Oregon ($150 million).
Snider says this decision on where the line ends will be a crucial one. "My vote will be for a project that is consistent with past promises and votes, and is worth its hefty price tag – for a project that will be transformative. My belief is that we need to build a shorter project, not a skinnier one, that terminates in Tigard's downtown. That's a paradigm shift that I know my council and Tigard voters will be happy to support in November 2020 and beyond," he said.
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