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Planning a future SW light rail line continues despite the pandemic; November vote not a sure thing

In case you're wondering what's happening with the ambitious, expensive plan to build the sixth regional TriMet light-rail line down Southwest Barbur Boulevard, first the basics.

What's proposed but still hasn't been approved or fully funded is an 11-mile light-rail line that would give Southwest Portland the type of transit option available elsewhere in the Portland area. If built, the line would run from Portland State University along Barbur Boulevard through Tigard and terminate in Tualatin.

The current projected cost is $2.8 billion, give or take $100 million. If things fall into place and funding ultimately is approved, construction could start in 2022, with trains running by September 2027.

IS THIS STILL HAPPENING?

Very much so. TriMet staffers working from home are tying up some of the loose ends in the plan this summer. It's possible that more than a third of the $2.8 billion cost of the SW Corridor Project (as the overall package is known) would be included in a transit funding measure Metro might put on the Nov. 3 ballot. The Federal Transit Administration will be asked to kick in about half the cost.

TriMet spokesperson Roberta Altstadt wrote in an email that work on designing and technically describing the light-rail line is "continuing full steam ahead. We are committed to planning for the future that comes after this crisis, and affordable, reliable, sustainable transportation will be more important than ever ... major infrastructure projects can be essential in helping our region emerge from recession."

SO WE'LL GET TO VOTE ON WHETHER THIS KEEPS HAPPENING?

It's hard to imagine how TriMet can afford to build its sixth light-rail line without buy-in from local voters. According to Andy Shaw of Metro, staffers are putting together a multibillion-dollar ballot measure for a variety of transit projects.

TriMet has budgeted $975 million for Southwest light rail based on a majority yes vote for this measure. The plan, as of mid-May, is for Metro councilors to vote on July 16 whether to put it on the November ballot. Whatever shape pandemic politics takes will come into play, especially since Metro won passage of its homeless measure on May 19.

"Look at data. Think about what you're doing. That's exactly what the people at Metro are doing," TriMet's Tom Markgraf told the SW Corridor citizens advisory committee in early May. "They (Metro) are going to be doing a lot of polling over the summer to see whether there is an appetite to continue with a ballot measure."

Yes, maybe, is the answer to whether you get a chance to support or oppose Southwest light rail in November.

WHY HASN'T THERE BEEN MUCH NEWS ABOUT SW MAX LATELY?

You mean other than because of the pandemic dominating news coverage? The SW Community Connection has kept readers abreast of the latest developments in the planning for this new light-rail line, but let's face it, babies born this year will be 7 years old by the time a line would go into operation. There are more immediate concerns.

The fact that the project Steering Committee hasn't met this year means newsworthy decisions like whether to remove lanes of traffic from Barbur Boulevard haven't been made for a while. That committee is made up of six elected officials — Commissioner Chloe Eudaly is Portland's representative – TriMet general manager Doug Kelsey and whoever happens to show up from ODOT.

There currently are no meetings scheduled, but the committee met nine times last year. The Steering Committee for the Orange Line, which started running from Portland to Milwaukie in 2015, met eight times total between 2008 and 2013. When Metro makes a decision about the transit funding measure in July, that's newsworthy.

HOW DID THE LINE SHRINK FROM 12 TO 11 MILES?

OK, no one asked that question. But all the literature for this project over the years called it a "12-mile light-rail line." Then a doorstop of a document called the Conceptual Design Report was issued in February. It says, "The SW Corridor Light Rail Project will be an 11-mile extension of the existing MAX light rail system."

Altstadt explained that the line is still projected to go from PSU to Bridgeport Village, it's just that the 12-mile route "was based on a representative alignment from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement" back in 2018. Turns out with all the zigs and zags in the planning process since then, the line is shorter than they thought. But no less expensive.


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