Southwest MAX line hits some serious speed bumps
The Southwest Corridor Project to bring light rail to Southwest Portland is full of surprises.
Surprise one: Barbur Boulevard may lose one traffic lane in each direction despite significant opposition to doing so.
Surprise two: The 12-mile line may not actually go all the way to Bridgeport Village in Tualatin from downtown Portland.
Surprise three: The effort to plan and build a multi-billion dollar light rail line like the MAX lines in other parts of the city is running about $460 million over budget.
The Steering Committee of the project, made up of seven elected and appointed leaders from Portland and Washington County, meets Monday, Sept. 23, to consider these developments and the need to trim costs from a budget that will have to be approved by local voters and the Federal Transit Administration.
When members reconvene in October, they will decide where to cut the proposed budget; whether a line would go to Bridgeport or just Tigard; and what would happen to those traffic lanes on Barbur Boulevard.
After laying out the new options for a less-expensive project for members of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Sept. 5, TriMet program manager Kelly Betteridge said reducing traffic lanes on Barbur is under study.
"We're gathering technical information about a couple of sections on Barbur to see if it's technically feasible to go from two lanes in each direction to one lane," she said.
Tigard Mayor Jason Snider predicts that removing traffic lanes on a route many of his constituents use is a deal breaker. Asked if he was concerned about that possibility, he wrote in an email, "If you're asking the Tigard City Council, and I've asked, yes, it's a concern. If you're asking city of Tigard residents, I've asked them, too: yes, it's a concern. If you're asking many of the other elected members of the steering committee, it's not a concern, as you heard them state at the July Steering Committee Meeting."
Mayor Snider said eliminating lanes so the line can run all the way to Bridgeport could be a deal killer. "We will be punished by the voters in this region for our stubbornness when the funding vote fails in November of next year," he wrote.
According to David Martin, who chairs the Transportation Committee of the nearby neighborhood coalition Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., the removal of traffic lanes for light rail "is a huge issue for which inadequate time is available to assess the impact.
"From Day 1 the (Southwest Corridor) Project has figuratively held up their right hand and swore, 'We promise we will maintain two lanes on Barbur in each direction.' That promise has been repeated for years. But now, at the 11th hour with minimal time to conduct proper public outreach, the project has done a complete about-face and says, 'We can't actually afford to do that,'" Martin wrote in an email.
John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute, which was involved in a campaign in Tigard against light rail, said Snider knows full well that voters initially rejected light rail for Tigard.
"Mayor Snider has said that narrowing Barbur to only one lane in both directions would be a serious problem for him because Tigard voters would be outraged. I think this option (removing lanes) would be fatal to the 2020 bond," Charles wrote in an email.
Charles is referring to a ballot measure scheduled to appear on the November 2020 ballot that is expected to raise $850 million for light rail if passed. Such a measure is almost sure to include millions of dollars for funding other transit projects through the three-county region. Details currently are being drafted.
TriMet's Betteridge said removing traffic lanes from Barbur wasn't considered initially because TriMet didn't have enough traffic information.
"The other thing that has changed is that the city of Portland is having conversations throughout the city and region about the potential of reallocating space," she said, which is another way of saying removing traffic lanes.
Betteridge also laid out the possibility of not running trains right down the middle of Barbur Boulevard from Burlingame Fred Meyers to north of the Barbur Transit Center. Instead, trains would leave Barbur Boulevard and run in the area between Barbur and Interstate 5.
In July, Mayor Snider of Tigard began asking whether TriMet could afford to build a line that goes all the way to Bridgeport Village. Since then, TriMet has developed a series of options that include a line to Tigard rather than through Tigard to Tualatin.
"I continue to be surprised at the blinders that this project has on, and the lengths that project stakeholders are willing to go to stretch the project beyond what the region can afford. I would have thought that, by now, people would accept that this project, if it gets built, is going to be a downtown Portland-to-downtown Tigard project," he wrote.
TriMet General Manager Doug Kelsey has said repeatedly that he's committed to a light rail line that goes all the way to Bridgeport Village. He calls Tualatin "the North Star" of the project.
Snider disagrees. "I predict that the Steering Committee will remain singularly focused on Bridgeport, taking lanes off Barbur to do so, and we will be punished by the voters in this region for our stubbornness when the funding vote fails in November of next year."
The alignment vote —to go all the way to Bridgeport; only as far as Bonita Road in Tigard; or only to Hall Boulevard in Tigard — will take place at the Steering Committee in late October.
"We've maintained all along, and continue to maintain, that a terminal station in downtown Tigard is actually the best possible place to end the line because of the enormous ridership potential that's there due to bus transfers, WES transfers and the redevelopment of our downtown properties into high density housing," wrote Snider.
WES is TriMet's Westside Express Service, a commuter rail line serving Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and Wilsonville.
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 TriMet 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.
So the Steering Committee will consider four approaches to cutting costs and raising revenue. TriMet claims to have found $60 million in savings so far, leaving a $400 million shortfall.
One approach would go all the way to Bridgeport, include lane reductions on Barbur and the need to raise another $200 million from somewhere.
Another would only go as far as Bonita Road in Tigard, which is less than a mile east of Hall Boulevard. It would also mean fewer traffic lanes on Barbur Boulevard and not require any additional funding.
Two other approaches would leave all the lanes on Barbur Boulevard intact. One of them would go as far as Bonita Road and would require $200 million more while the other would only go as far as Hall Boulevard in Tigard near the current city government offices. That one wouldn't require additional funding.
In short, the Steering Committee will be considering the length of a light rail line; the impact on Barbur Boulevard; and how to bring the proposed project in line with the proposed budget.
Here's the current funding scheme: TriMet is hoping to get the federal government to pay half the eventual cost of the project — currently estimated to be about $1.25 billion — with the balance 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).
The region won't know for a couple of years whether this light rail line for Southwest Portland will even be built. If voters approve a regional transit funding measure in November 2020 and if the Federal Transit Administration agrees by September 2022 to pick up half the tab, the first train won't run until September 2027.
Pamplin Media Group reported in August that TriMet and Metro already have spent $36.27 million on the Southwest Corridor Project, the design of which is 15% complete.
Find out more at TriMet's Southwest Corridor website.
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