SW MAX line all the way to Bridgeport could be budget-buster
The seven men and one woman charged with planning a $2.5 billion Southwest Portland light rail line are facing some significant considerations when they meet in September.
Members of the Southwest Corridor Project Steering Committee will be deciding in the next few months how to get riders from Barbur Boulevard up to Oregon Health & Science University's campus; how many and what type of park-and-rides to include; and, most importantly, whether the line should run 12 miles to Bridgeport from Portland State University or just eight and a half miles to downtown Tigard.
Jason Snider, the mayor of Tigard, brought up the idea of a shorter light rail line at a steering committee meeting in July. TriMet staff have been studying what that would mean since then. Snider said he's concerned that cutting the projected costs of the light rail line will result in less money for Barbur Boulevard, which many of his constituents drive every day to Portland.
If the light rail plan goes through, Barbur would see significant redesign.
Snider said he wants to know if Tigard voters want fewer car lanes on Barbur Boulevard or a line that goes all the way to Bridgeport. "To that end, TriMet has committed to poll the question, and I've asked to see the results of that polling well in advance of the next steering committee meeting," he wrote in an email to the SW Connection in mid-August.
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. That 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.
In July, 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 (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 rejected their city spending a dime on the project. But that vote later was reversed by an exceedingly narrow margin.
Snider said 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 could be threatened.
Rogers said he 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, Kathryn Harrington, 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, TriMet General Manager 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 likely will 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 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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