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Economic freefall of pandemic put brakes on $5.2 billion transportation proposal

PMG FILE PHOTO - Voters have turned down funding for a new light rail line and 17 regional transportation plans.Following the Nov. 3 defeat of Metro's Measure 26-218, an extensive transportation package that would have funded the proposed Southwest Corridor light rail project — TriMet will put a pause on its MAX plans for the moment.

"Over the next few months, we will work to conclude the final environmental impact statement and temporarily shut down the project while we explore a path forward," said Tyler Graf, a spokesperson for TriMet. "We will have advanced the project to a point where it could be efficiently restarted at a future date, when resources become available."

A follow-up steering committee meeting was scheduled for mid-November to discuss the recent election results and the "buttoning up" of the MAX plans, according to a TriMet officials.

The plan for the Southwest Corridor MAX line was to stretch 11 miles between downtown Portland and Bridgeport Village, just outside Tualatin. It would've included seven light rail stations built in Portland, five in Tigard and one in Tualatin. Those stations would have included Portland State University, Marquam Hill, the Barbur Transit Center, forthcoming West Portland Town Center and Portland Community College's Sylvania campus, before stopping in Tigard.

Metro's $5.2 billion regional transportation ballot measure was defeated by a margin of 58% to 42% in late unofficial results. Measure 26-218 was defeated in all three counties in Metro's jurisdiction.

The defeat upends years of transportation planning and threatens the future of the Southwest Corridor MAX line that the measure would have helped finance.

Measure 26-218 was intended to help fund projects in 17 transportation corridors in the region, including the new MAX line. It would have imposed a payroll tax of up to 0.75% on employers with more than workers.

Metro President Lynn Peterson favored limiting the rate to 0.60% had the measure passed.

Peterson said the elected regional government was disappointed by the loss but would continue working for transportation improves.

"Though disappointed, we are still committed to the vision and to the community who helped identify and build the vision. The fact is, our communities -- particularly communities of color and low-income families struggling the most right now — still need safer streets, better transit and improved access to opportunity. That's what we heard through the years of engagement that informed Get Moving 2020," said Peterson.

"Defeat of the wage tax is a rejection of failed Metro leadership and mission creep and a victory for protecting family paychecks, job, and employers of all kind. In the future, Oregon employers should never be excluded or disregarded when local or state governments seek to raise new taxes. This victory demonstrates that the diverse voices of employers are always stronger when we are united and speak with a single, powerful voice," said Jeff Reading, a spokesman for the opponents.

In a statement following the Nov. 3 election TriMet said the measure's defeat was a disappointment, but also a big ask of the region's voters.

"We are disappointed, as the Southwest Corridor project would have addressed one of the most congested travel corridors in the region, connected affordable housing to regional employment centers, advanced climate strategies, and would have been a much-needed boost to the economy during and after construction. However, we understand that this measure was a substantial ask during a time of significant economic uncertainty and the unprecedented impacts of COVID 19," the agency stated in a new landing page for the SW Corridor Light Trail project.

The transportation measure had well-financed opposition by way of a Stop the Metro Wage Tax PAC that raked in nearly $2.7 million, including $915,000 from Nike and $175,000 from Intel.

Transportation measure was years in the making

Planning for the new MAX line began many years ago. It was always considered to be part of comprehensive transportation improvements between downtown Portland and the rapidly growing portion of Washington County that includes Tigard and Tualatin. Cities and counties along the route also realized that more affordable housing would be needed to minimize displacement caused by increasing property values, also known as gentrification.

PMG PHOTO - The Barbur Transit Center would be reconfigured if a light rail line is ever built in Southwest Portland and Tigard., Southwest Community Connection - Opinion Public transit advocate questions proposal being considered for potential SW MAX line Should park-and-ride structures and lots along a light rail line charge a fee?Because Metro is a regional government, its elected council realized it needed to give voters outside the corridor a reason to vote for it. That provided an opportunity to create a regional transportation improvement plan with input from stakeholders in all three counties. The council endorsed its list around 150 projects in 16 transportation corridors in the counties.

According to the plan, the largest investment would have been $975 million to help finance the new MAX line in the Southwest Corridor. The federal government was 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: 82nd Avenue, $540 million; McLoughlin Boulevard, $230 million; Burnside Street, $370 million; Central City, $240 million; Southwest 185th Avenue, $190 million; Highway 212/Sunrise Corridor, $240 million; Clackamas-to-Columbia/181st Corridor, $150 million; Southeast Powell Boulevard, $110 million; 162nd Avenue, $100 million; 122nd Avenue, $100 million; Albina Vision project in the Rose Quarter area, $65 million; Highway 43, $70 million; Highway 217, $18 million; Highway 99W, $5 million; and Highway 26, $1 million.

Plans called for another $250 million to be raised each year for the next 20 years for transportation-related programs. They ranged from Safe Routes to Schools to annual TriMet youth programs for high school students in the region.

With this loss, Metro says it does not have a backup plan to pay for the Southwest Corridor Light Rail line.

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