Lawmakers try to steer 'bypass' through new highway districts
SALEM — The long debate over a highway cutting across rural Washington County to bypass congestion on roads and freeways has stretched into 2019.
State legislators heard testimony last week on Senate Bill 413, which would put the ability to finance and build public highways in the hands of local government, giving them the authority to create special highway districts.
Districts would build and maintain highways within their boundaries. They could also use eminent domain, establish tolls and sidestep local regulations and land-use decisions.
The legislation was requested by former state Rep. Rich Vial of Scholls, who served one term in the House and chairs the Washington County planning commission. Vial has long championed a highway between the Wilsonville and Hillsboro areas.
Commonly known as the "Westside Bypass" — although Vial said the term "has become essentially a swear word in Washington County" — the concept of linking Wilsonville and Hillsboro has circulated for decades. Some variants also include a northern route between Hillsboro and the St. Helens area, perhaps even crossing the Columbia River to link up with Interstate 5.
Vial's concept could be used on the western outskirts of the Portland area, or anywhere else in the state — for instance, fast-growing Central Oregon, where the Highway 97 corridor has become increasingly congested.
The idea has divided Portland-area policymakers. Metro President Lynn Peterson, elected last year after chairing the Clackamas County commission, called SB 413 a "distraction" in testimony submitted to the Joint Transportation Committee last week.
"A 'limited-access public highway project district,' as proposed in SB 413, would operate entirely outside the existing transportation planning process," Peterson said. "It would have extremely broad authority to ignore crucial substantive and procedural protections that exist to ensure that public decisions are consistent and do not have unintended consequences."
Wilsonville Mayor Tim Knapp also opposes SB 413. He's concerned about such a district overriding land-use planning and building on so-called rural reserves, land that has been designated by Metro for agricultural or forestry use, he told lawmakers. That would create "uncertainty" for local businesses and farmers, he argued.
Making connections work
However, Knapp's counterpart at the other end of the long-proposed bypass, Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway, supports the highway proposal. "It is a bold idea that could be an important implementing tool to address crippling congestion in the Metro region in coordination with our partners," Callaway wrote in a letter to the committee.
Vial lives near Hillsboro, but he represented a district that stretches down to Wilsonville. Under normal traffic conditions, it's about a 45-minute drive on surface streets and two-lane highways to get from the Tualatin Valley Highway in Hillsboro to the Willamette River in Wilsonville. Depending on the time of day, driving on the freeway instead may take even longer.
Vial also owns a family farm, and he said he knows firsthand that traffic on the "farm-to-market" roads of rural Washington County is bad and getting worse. "We're running at excess capacity on virtually all of those roads," Vial said.
Vial points to the Denver area as a model. The Colorado Legislature voted in 1987 to let cities and counties team up to build a toll highway that now loops through Denver's eastern suburbs and provides a direct route to Denver International Airport. "It has been a wildly successful limited-access highway on the east side," Vial said, "using exactly the same tool that I am proposing with Senate Bill 413."
This isn't the first time the Legislature has heard Vial's pitch. A virtually identical proposal in 2017, House Bill 3231, got a public hearing but failed to advance.
Dan Keeley, for one, is tired of it. "I can agree that paving my farm would solve the delivery problem, but I'm not sure that's really the right solution — at least, I hope not," said Keeley, who lives outside St. Paul, at last week's hearing.
Rep. Susan McLain, D-Forest Grove, isn't sold on the proposal either. The model for Colorado's bypass may not work in Oregon, she said, and she's concerned about how a tolled highway with its own district would fit into regional planning and transportation.
"You can't just have one connection that's limited-access and think you're going to solve the problems of interstate and intrastate traffic," McLain said. "It's not going to be one project like this that's going to make the connection work."