Hillsboro wants ODOT to study route from I-5 to Sunset Highway

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Rush hour traffic is already congested in both direction on Highway 26 near Highway 217. A new white paper predicts it will get much worse in coming years but could be relieved by a new Westside Transportation Corridor.Hillsboro’s City Council is revisiting a controversial road project intended to relieve growing traffic congestion in Washington County.

The council wants Oregon’s Department of Transportation to evaluate the need for a new westside transportation corridor. It is essentially a longer version of the western bypass project that was abandoned in the 1990s.

The council voted on Nov. 20 to submit a bill to the 2013 Legislature requiring that ODOT study a new automobile and freight link from Interstate 5 near Wilsonville past Hillsboro to the Port of Portland. The study is to be completed in time for the 2015 legislative session.

The vote follows the release of a new white paper commissioned by the council that predicts motor vehicle congestion will spread beyond the rush hours in Washington County — and beyond — without such a project. The paper, “Transportation Infrastructure and the Westside Economy,” was prepared during the past three months by the ECONorthwest economic consulting firm and the Transpo Group, a Kirkland, Wash., transportation consulting firm.

“Many of the suburban and rural highways that link Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove with Beaverton, Tualatin, Tigard and Wilsonville, will experience heavy congestion. These routes were not designed and built to withstand the growth in urban commuter and freight mobility demand expected in the future. Traffic safety will be a key concern on these routes,” according to the consultants’ report.

Although the Hillsboro council is requesting a study, Mayor Jerry Willey already sounds like he supports the project. In a Nov. 7 letter to regional elected officials, Willey wrote, “White paper data and analysis makes a strong case that the state and Northwest Oregon communities should rigorously assess the long-term need for a Westside freight and mobility corridor alternative to I-5.”

In his letter, Willey also correctly predicts there will be strong opposition to the proposal because of its potential cost and impact on agricultural and natural resource lands.

“It’s hard to imagine that such a project is justifiable. It’s well proven that there are less expensive alternatives that can be put into place, like giving people options to using their cars,” says Mary Kyle McCurdy, policy director of the 1000 Friends of Oregon land-use watchdog organization.

Multi-modal approach

Washington County’s economic engine has been growing faster than the rest of the region for many years. Between 1967 and 1987, retail sales in the county increased nearly 12 percent compared to less than 2 percent in Portland, which dominates Multnomah County. Since then, companies like Intel have fueled a high tech boom in and around Hillsboro. The most recent U.S. Census figures show Washington County grew 1.2 percent in 2012, faster than either Multnomah County at 0.09 percent or Clackamas County at 0.08 percent.

The white paper says the growth is fueling congestion that cannot be adequately reduced by transit and other alternative forms of transportation. It contends congestion is spreading throughout an interstate region that stretches from the coast through the Willamette Valley and up into the state of Washington.

According to the paper, affected counties include Washington, Multnomah, Clackamas, Yamhill, Marion, Columbia, Clackamas, Clatsop and Tillamook in Oregon, and Clark and Skamania counties in Washington.

The council believes the extent of the congestion makes the issue a matter of state concern.

Oregon and Washington County transportation officials began planning for the westside bypass in the 1980s. In 1987, Metro formally amended its regional transportation plan to include the bypass. At that time, it was planned to be a four-lane freeway from I-5 near Wilsonville to the Sunset Highway near the 185th Avenue interchange. Construction was expected to begin after Interstate 205 was completed.

Some Washington County residents opposed the project, however, because portions of it would cut through farm and forest lands. They formed Sensible Transportation Options for People — or STOP — modeled after the citizens group that blocked the Mt. Hood Freeway in Portland in the 1970s.

Aided by the land-use watchdog organization 1000 Friends of Oregon, STOP sued Metro, charging that the project violated the state’s land-use and urban growth boundary rules. 1000 Friends instituted its own suit against Washington County for its role in the project. Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals ruled the county needed to consider alternatives to the westside bypass.

As a result, ODOT agreed to study a range of options. In addition to the proposed project, they included: a no-build alternative that included completion of Westside MAX, expanded feeder TriMet bus service and already funded roadway improvements; a transportation system management/planned projects alternative that added unfunded roadway improvements and transportation demand management features, such as parking charges and “dial-a-ride” transit service; and an arterial expansion/high occupancy vehicle express alternative that added the construction of new express arterials and preferred access for HOVs.

At the invitation of ODOT, 1000 Friends of Oregon helped prepare another alternative. Called the land-use/transportation/air quality alternative, it added an emphasis on dense transit-oriented developments, new light-rail lines along Highway 217 and Highway 99W. The alternative argued that such measures would eliminate the need for the bypass.

In the end, Metro dropped the bypass from future versions of the transportation plan, instead adopting a multi-modal approach to transportation that includes transit and other alternatives to more freeways. Metro also promised to help fund improvements to some existing arterials, however, including better connections between I-5 and Highway 99W.

Even that work was at least temporarily blocked when Wilsonville and the Clackamas County Commission opposed the project in October 2009. Discussions are continuing on it, however.

Resolve the issues

Support for the westside bypass never died, however. The concept has repeatedly surfaced at state and county meetings. During the Columbia River Crossing planning process, activists repeatedly presented the bypass as a lower-cost alternative to the controversial Columbia River Crossing project. And a citizen group called Third Bridge Now proposed linking it to Clark County with a new bridge over the Columbia River. Those ideas were rejected in favor of a replacement bridge between Oregon and Washington.

Many of the Washington County road improvement and other projects approved by Metro have been completed. But the white paper says they are not enough to prevent growing congestion from strangling the 11-county interstate region. In fact, a recent Metro transportation survey found the percentage of trips taken by automobiles in the region has barely changed in the past two decades, despite increased investment in transit and pedestrian and bike trails. The white paper argues that something along the lines of the westside bypass is still needed.

The proposed bill authorized by Hillsboro calls for a study of a new transportation corridor running from I-5 near Wilsonville through portions of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties to Highway 30, which connects to I-5 and the Port of Portland. The exact route would be determined by ODOT.

Although the westside bypass project has been declared dead in the past, Hillsboro’s vote comes at a time when once-settled transportation decisions are being challenged throughout the region.

This year alone, Clackamas County voters derailed the long-planned Portland Streetcar extension to Lake Oswego, approved a measure requiring public votes on future rail projects and replaced two commissioners who support the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line with opponents. Voters in Tigard and King City also approved measures that require public votes on rail projects. And leaders in all three counties now want Metro to streamline its traditional public process and approve spending $34 million in unexpected federal transportation funds on economic development projects.

“It’s time we resolve this very important Westside Corridor debate,” Willey wrote in his Nov. 7 letter.

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