Members of the Clackamas County Business Alliance had the opportunity on Tuesday, April 6, to hear from representatives of Metro on what the regional government has been up to over the past year since COVID-19 began posing challenges to government agencies across the nation.
Metro President Lynn Peterson was joined by Andy Shaw, Metro's director of government affairs, and Christine Lewis, Metro councilor for Zone 2 covering a large swath of northern Clackamas County. The three gave brief updates on a variety of developments at Metro including its response to the pandemic, regional transportation, garbage and recycling, affordable housing and supportive services, parks natural preservation and long-range planning for the entire tri-county region.
Peterson kicked off the meeting with a brief overview of how the pandemic has affected its operations, most visibly the laying off of nearly 750 employees in the first three weeks of the pandemic last March. Metro helps to operate not only more than a dozen parks and recreation sites throughout the region, but also the Oregon Zoo and performing arts venues in Portland such as the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall and Keller Auditorium.
"Metro has been through the wringer, as most hospitality and tourism industries have, since about half our business model is on that side and for sure we've been right there with you on the journey of the past year," Peterson said. "We're really excited to be opening back up."
Lewis agreed, noting that the reopening of Metro's assets at this time provides a unique opportunity to re-envision what being open looks like moving forward.
According to Peterson, one of Metro's efforts that's been on hold throughout the pandemic is the update to the regional 2040 "growth concept" plan. Peterson said that plan has been on the back-burner for the better part of 12 months as Metro turned its time and energy to working with Greater Portland, Inc., on a five-year economic recovery plan with jurisdictional partners across the region as everyone focuses on pulling out of the economic crisis caused by the pandemic.
"As you can imagine, during this time nobody wanted to talk about 2070 during a pandemic and economic crisis," Peterson said. "We're going to leave the visioning to after we're all back on solid ground and can actually see past the next couple years."
Peterson also noted that the agency is in the process of doling out $475 million worth of parks-bond funding to Metro-area jurisdictions for natural projects and preservation passed by voters in 2019, as well as an additional $652 million for affordable housing passed by voters in 2018 — both funds of which Clackamas County has benefited in spurring development of new projects.
Shaw spoke briefly regarding Metro's disappointment over the failure of the 2020 transportation bond measure last November, but also said that the measure has taught Metro some lessons it plans to take forward as the agency explores new avenues to fund regional transportation projects seen as key to safety, mobility and protection of the environment.
Shaw said that there will be expanded opportunities for businesses like those who are members of the CCBA to take part in a robust public-engagement process where many voices throughout the region are brought to the table to talk about ways to fund key initiatives in transportation infrastructure.
Lewis also briefly touched on transportation, saying that Metro's Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation (JPACT) has come up with a list of Clackamas County infrastructure assets that should be prioritized for earmarks in the upcoming congressional transportation bill. Lewis said that JPACT has met with some members of Oregon's federal delegation to talk about earmarking projects such as the I-205 Abernethy Bridge, Highway 43 and others in Gladstone, Oregon City and Happy Valley.
"Clackamas County shows really well in our regional ask to Congress for earmarks," Lewis said. "Earmarks have not been around for the past decade or two, so this is our first shot at it in a while, and we're well positioned. "
Lewis also mentioned that Metro is reaching its first milestone in its effort to study "congestion pricing" or tolling.
"We will see some hard-modeled evidence of what we all know to be true, that if you put a price on just 205, there will be diversion," Lewis said. "So I'm very excited to see that the actual engineers and people who have lots of letters after their names have done a model that shows what we know to be true, but we will also see different schemes performing better and not causing diversion, so there will be not only a Metro Council session looking at this, but we'll have an expert panel as well as with our conversations here in Clackamas County."
CCBA President Nellie de Vries then took time to field some questions from business-alliance members on a range of topics.
The first asked for an update on when Metro believes construction might begin on the Willamette Falls Legacy Project Riverwalk.
Lewis responded saying that things are moving quickly since the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde purchased the property nearly 16 months ago.
"We have agreed to a new concept for the riverwalk. There's a set of things that need to happen before we hit the final stages of design and begin construction, and I believe those things are fluid because they have to deal with making sure funding is in order despite the fact we do have the funds for a new identified phase one we're committing to in the next few years," Lewis said. "I don't have a hard construction start date but I see it on the horizon in the next few years."
Lewis did not mention that regional leaders' approval of the walkway concept on Feb. 4 turned out to be only a tentative, verbal agreement. The Grand Ronde tribe has since delayed signing on the dotted line to complete the public Riverwalk.
There was some concern from some other tribes in the Pacific Northwest about the involvement they've had in planning the Riverwalk. Metro has agreed to hear their concerns in formal listening sessions, which in turn caused renewed concern by the Grand Ronde about what Metro plans to do with the information it receives from neighboring tribes.
Construction originally scheduled to break ground in 2018 is still on hold for an indefinite period, with the earliest possible completion date now scheduled for 2025. The project's timeline initially was pushed back to a 2020 groundbreaking due to a former property owner's refusal to pay taxes and sign permit applications.
A question was posed about Metro's position on potentially closing the West Linn-Oregon City Arch Bridge to vehicular traffic, to which Lewis replied that she believed that proposal was merely a ploy by the Oregon Department of Transportation to provide a "no-build" option to the question of finding new ways for cyclists and pedestrians to cross the Willamette between the two cities. Lewis said she doesn't believe the Arch Bridge to be the safest option for cyclists and said she supports the construction of a new, dedicated bridge for bikes and peds in the near future.
Clackamas County Commissioner Mark Shull submitted a question asking the Metro representatives what the agency is doing to spur free-market construction of residential projects. Shull suggested such projects would increase inventory that will result in bringing costs down so people can qualify to purchase a home and reduce the need for affordable projects, including changes to building codes, zoning and ideas for financing.
Peterson responded by commending Shull for the question, and said that while the implementation of changes to zoning and building code is actually the responsibility of counties and cities, Metro has been vocal in its support for its jurisdictional partners to look at those changes with a lens that helps clear the way for more development. She said that if cities and counties look at reducing restrictions on development of multi-family housing and reducing permitting time, it could have a big impact.
"A lot of jurisdictions are looking at waiving system development charges for affordable to low-income housing, and I think that's where a lot of the problem lies right now," Peterson said.
One of the final questions of the forum's question-and-answer session had to do with plans for the development of the county's Sunrise Corridor along Highway 212 between unincorporated Clackamas and Damascus.
Lewis said the Sunrise Corridor is a huge priority for everyone in Clackamas County, and while it's not on Metro's list of priorities, she's personally invested in helping usher in funding to complete a comprehensive planning study for the area.
"Particularly for east-west connections across Clackamas County, they are sorely lacking," Lewis said. "Part of that is the geography, the other is lack of historic investment as communities have popped up more north-south. With Happy Valley being the largest growing city in the state, we obviously see that as an impacted area and need to be planning for the road of the future."
Lewis said she's had conversations with Clackamas County's legislative delegation who will ask for approximately $4 million from the state to get that planning work completed in the near future.
"We have to be planning for the future because we can get further and further behind by not having the plans on the map and being ready to be advantageous next time there is a possibility of getting capital dollars," she said.
The final question of the session asked the Metro representatives to comment on when the agency might expand the urban-growth boundary again, to which Shaw responded 2024.
"We've looked at where we are and aren't going to expand into the urban reserves, so luckily that's really narrowed down what we're talking about in terms of where we grow," Peterson said. "We will start in on that conversation, I believe, next year."
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