Sides gird for fight on measure to block high-speed plans

Traffic and congestion are the top concerns of Tigard residents, according to municipal surveys. But next March city voters will be asked to stop the solution being prepared by regional leaders, a new high-capacity transit corridor between Portland and Tualatin. It is supported by the Washington County Commission and most cities within the county, including Beaverton and Sherwood.

Ballot Measure 34-210 opposes new high-capacity corridor projects in Tigard. It was placed on the March 11 special election ballot by activists opposed to Metro’s Southwest Corridor Project. They do not believe that either transit option being studied — a new light-rail line or a bus rapid-transit line with dedicated lanes — would reduce congestion. Instead, they think it will be used to increase density throughout the corridor.

“Replacing car lanes with a MAX train or dedicated bus line will increase congestion,” says measure supporter Art Crino, the initiative’s co-petitioner. “People want to live in houses with a back yard big enough for a swing set for their kids.”

But opponents of the measure say it is short-sighted to prohibit the city from considering high-capacity transit as an option at this time. The plan is still in the study phase and will not be finalized for years.

“High-capacity transit should remain a tool in the toolbox while the plan is still being developed,” says Thomas Murphy, a Tigard attorney involved in forming a campaign committee to oppose the measure.

Tigard has notified residents that passage of the measure would prevent city officials from continuing to participate in the plan, at least temporarily. A front-page article in the December 2013 issue of the Cityscape newsletter said, “Should the initiative pass, the city would stop evaluating options to formulate a position on high-capacity transit.”

The article also said it was unknown whether passage would stop the plan itself.

“The city is looking into that question,” it said.

The fight over the measure is expected to kick into high gear after the first of the year. Supporters have already filed their campaign committee, the Roads Not Rail Committee, with the Oregon secretary of state’s office. Murphy says his committee, called Stop Congestion, Vote No Committee, should be filed soon. And the first public forum is already scheduled.

Supporters and opponents are set to square off at 7 p.m. on Jan. 8 at the King City Club House, 15245 S.W. 116th Ave. It is organized by the Democratic Party of Washington County. “This issue is extremely important for the Southwest Portland, Tigard, Sherwood and Tualatin areas, as it will impact future transportation and planning for the next 20 years,” according to an announcement for the forum.

Both plans are complicated

Surveys conducted by the city of Tigard show residents consistently rate traffic congestion as the single most important issue for the City Council to address. Since 2007, 28 to 39 percent of residents have rated it as the top issue. That’s two to three times more than any other issue.

The most recent survey found that 59 percent of Tigard residents think high-capacity transit would reduce congestion. That was not the most popular remedy, however. In the survey released last week, 22 percent of respondents favored widening roads and adding more lanes. Only 3 percent favored more bus service and public transportation. And only 1 percent favored light rail.

Despite that, taking a stand on either the Southwest Corridor Plan or Ballot Measure 34-210 requires study. Both are more complicated than they appear.

The current version of the plan does not simply call for a new high-capacity corridor between Portland and Tualatin. It also involves a wide range of other projects along the corridor, including new pedestrian and bike paths, zoning changes to allow new residential and commercial development, and the preservation of existing natural areas and open spaces. The first transit project envisioned in the plan is the expansion of TriMet bus service within the corridor.

Likewise, Ballot Measure 34-210 is not simply an advisory vote but adopts a public policy opposed to a new high-capacity transit project. It would require the city to send a letter to various public officials each year notifying them of this policy. It defines “new high-capacity transit corridor” as any portion of the regional transit system proposed for development within Tigard that reduces available road capacity in favor of light rail, rail transit or exclusive bus lanes. And it requires a public vote on any ordinance amending the city’s comprehensive land-use plan or land-use regulations to accommodate such projects.

Long-term concerns

Murphy fears passage of the measure would scuttle the entire Southwest Corridor Plan, not just the high-capacity transit corridor portion. He says federal transit funds are available for either a new light-rail or bus rapid-transit line, which would serve as a catalyst for the other projects.

“What are federal officials going to think if they get a letter from Tigard every year saying they are opposed to a high-capacity transit corridor?” asks Murphy, who serves on the City Center (Urban Renewal) Advisory Committee.

Crino doesn’t disagree, saying he thinks the plan is proposing an unrealistic choice.

“Why does it have to be either a light-rail line or a bus line with dedicated lanes? Why not just run more buses on the existing roads?” asks Crino, a retiree.

Murphy also thinks the measure is confusing and burdensome, and that it would be difficult for the council to refer every possible land-use change that could conceivably support a high-capacity corridor at some time in the future to the ballot.

“I’m a strong believer in democracy, and nobody better mess with my right to vote, but the requirements in the measure would be difficult to comply with,” Murphy says.

Crino says such requirements are necessary, however, to prevent regional officials from circumventing the will of the voters. He noted TriMet did not stop construction of TriMet’s new Orange Line into Milwaukie even after Clackamas County voters approved a measure requiring a public vote on future work for the project.

There are significant differences between the two projects, however. Clackamas County officials had signed legally binding contracts in support of the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line before the measure passed. Although numerous governments in the Southwest Corridor have passed resolutions supporting the plan, none have signed contracts related to it yet.

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