Despite economy, transportation package stays in fast lane
The economy has cratered, with hundreds of thousands of people losing jobs that might never return.
Many if not most of those still employed are working from home, a trend that may continue to grow even after the COVID-19 pandemic is subdued.
TriMet ridership and passenger revenue has dropped as much as 70% in recent months, with declines projected to continue for years to come. Motor vehicle traffic also is way down, despite the lowest gas prices in recent memory.
Despite all that, Metro is still considering referring a $5 billion regional transportation measure to the November general election ballot. It will include millions needed to fund the new Southwest Corridor MAX light rail line between Portland and Tualatin, along with more than 100 other road-related projects and projects in the greater Portland area.
Metro is considering asking voters to fund the projects and programs with an annual $56 motor vehicle fee and a .6% tax on payrolls within its jurisdiction, similar to the payroll tax that funds much of TriMet's operations. The council is tentatively scheduled to refer the measure to the ballot on Thursday, July 16.
Although the transportation landscape has changed dramatically since the measure was first proposed several years ago, both Metro and TriMet say that it — and the projects it will fund — are still needed. They believe the crisis eventually will pass, resulting in many people going out to work, shop and entertain themselves again.
"Once the COVID-19 pandemic no longer spreads unchecked, TriMet does believe people will happily come back on board and, over the long term, ridership will return to pre-COVID levels and even higher levels due to the expected changes coming for our region. Consider the growing population and employment opportunities, evolving our land-use and transportation strategies are critical in promoting transit-oriented developments and neighborhood walkability, meeting the region's critical climate change goals," said TriMet media relations and communications director Roberta Altstadt.
And in the short term, Metro and TriMet say the construction projects and new programs will help the region get through the next few years by creating tens of thousands of new jobs when they are most needed.
But economist Eric Fruits believes Metro is asking for too much money at the wrong time.
"These taxes will affect just about every voter in the region and every organization with a payroll will be subject to the tax —nonprofits, small firms and governments can't dodge the payroll tax," said Fruits, vice president of research at the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank. "Because of the size of the tax package and the broad base against which it'll be applied, area voters may not have an appetite to fund a transportation package. Especially a package in which light rail to a shopping mall is the biggest single component."
Projects and programs in measure
Planning for the new MAX line began many years ago. It was always consider to be part of comprehensive transportation improvements between downtown Portland and the rapidly growing areas of Washington County that includes Tigard and Tualatin. Cities and counties along the route also realized that more affordable housing would be needed to be created to minimize displacement caused by increasing property values, also known as gentrification.
But because the measure will be proposed by a regional government, there is also a need to give voters outside the corridor a reason to vote for it. That provided an opportunity to create a regional transportation improvement program to be funded by the measure. The council has indicated its support for around 150 projects in 16 transportation corridors in all three counties within Metro's jurisdiction.
According to the draft plan, the largest investment would be $975 million to help finance the new MAX line in the Southwest Corridor. The federal government is expected to pay half the cost of the project, currently estimated at $2.8 billion.
Other investments for projects and planning in the draft plan include: $520 million along Tualatin Valley Highway; $520 million along 82nd Avenue; $280 million along McLoughlin Boulevard; $270 million along Burnside Street; $220 million in the Central City; $200 million along Southwest 185th Avenue; $180 million in the Highway 212/Sunrise Corridor; $150 million in the Clackamas-to-Columbia/181st Corridor; $90 million along Southeast Powell Boulevard; $90 million along 162nd Avenue; $90 million along 122nd Avenue; $55 million for the Albina Vision project in the Rose Quarter area; $54 million along Highway 43; $12 million along Highway 217; and $3.5 million along Highway 99W.
Also likely to be approved are $250 million per year for transportation-related programs over the next 20 years.
If the measure is approved by voters at the Nov. 3 general election, Metro is likely to issue revenue bonds before the fee and tax become effective to bgin work on some of the projects as soon as possible.
"We must build today for the future, and building the transportation of tomorrow will also put people to work. As it has in the past, construction and transportation projects will generate economic activity and help our region recover," said Altstadt.
Fruits said Metro should postpone the measure, however.
"If voters reject the measure, then Southwest light rail is done. That's a big risk, especially for TriMet, who has spent a decade or more planning for this massive light rail project," Fruits said.
Metro also is busy enacting the homeless services ballot measure that voters approved at the May 19 primary election. It was intended to raise $250 million per year for 10 years by increasing income taxes on wealthier people and larger businesses. The total will probably be less because of the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, however.
You can find more information about the measure here.
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