The wisdom of building a sixth light rail line for the Portland area has been called into question by a member of the Portland City Council.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty took advantage of what would have been a routine, no-discussion item on the City Council agenda Wednesday, April 1, to share her concerns about a 12-mile MAX line that would connect downtown Portland and Tualatin with trains running along Barbur Boulevard and through Tigard. The current estimated cost of the project is $2.8 billion. If funding falls into place, the soonest the line could be operating is September 2027.
"I guess it appears you are operating under the assumption that this line will be built. I am not operating under that assumption," Hardesty told Teresa Boyle of the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
Boyle was seeking approval for a contract to have TriMet reimburse Portland $1.8 million, or $75,000 per month, for two years of work that PBOT staff has done and will do to plan the light rail line. The contract runs from February 2019 to February 2021 and is partially funded by the Federal Transit Administration
Boyle explained to Hardesty that with Council approval, "We'll be reimbursed (by TriMet) $1 million for our services with $800,000 to go. That's a good thing in these times, right?"
Commissioner Chloe Eudaly, who oversees PBOT and sits on the Steering Committee for the Southwest Corridor Project, said, "It's absolutely vital to get this money for work already done and to keep employed as many people as possible.
"Not accepting these funds would effectively kill this project," she said, "I would hate to see City Council make that decision for all of our regional partners."
Hardesty agreed that Portland should be reimbursed, but said, "The question is whether we should take on more work based on the realities of where we are," referring to the uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 crisis.
Boyle pointed out to Hardesty that, during the severe economic downturn of 2008, "We needed jobs like this (planning and building a light rail line) to put Portlanders to work."
Boyle said the Green Line — which runs between downtown Portland and Clackamas Town Center — was built with the help of stimulus funds. Also, a $25 million grant to build Moody Avenue — part of South Waterfront — streamlined the Orange Line running between Milwaukie and downtown Portland.
The $1.8 million TriMet will pay Portland is being used to complete work on an overdue Final Environmental Impact Statement and to finish 30% of the planning for the line.
Doing so, Boyle said, would make the project attractive for any future stimulus funds included in COVID-19 relief from Washington, D.C.
"Completion of this phase of the project makes this particular project ready and available and poised to be part of a stimulus effort that includes infrastructure," she said.
Hardesty ultimately voted to approve receiving the money from TriMet but sounded wary. Speaking by phone to the "virtual" and self-distanced meeting of the City Council, "I am very concerned that the assumption is that this light rail line is going to happen and I'm not feeling that. And I've had no communications that have led me to believe otherwise"
The light rail project is supposed to be part of a transportation bond measure that Metro may place on the November ballot.
Originally, the Portland Transportation Bureau and TriMet representatives were going to spend an hour Wednesday briefing the City Council on the Southwest Corridor Project, which also includes plans for housing and infrastructure improvements. But two days before the meeting, a vote to approve the progress of the project was pulled off the agenda.
Commissioner Eudaly's office asked that the vote be rescheduled for late spring or early summer so both agencies can solicit more public comment.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.