A defining year for Clackamas County Transportation

A defining year for Clackamas Coutny Transportation
By Oregon Tax News,

Thsi fall, Clackamas County residents may have the opportunity to vote on a ballot measure that would require voter approval for Clackamas County’s participation in the Portland-Milwaukie Light Rail project (PMLR). Specifically, ballot measure 3-401 requires county officials to get voter approval before spending county resources for “financing, design, construction, or operation of any public rail transit system.”

Clackamas County has already signed onto PMLR and pledged $25 million to the project as they see the project as important to their transportation plan. The county’s PMLR opponents, however, argue that the commissioners overstepped their authority in approving the project given its cost and likely impact to residents. If the ballot measure survives a court fight initiated by PMLR supporters, Clackamas County residents may have the authority to block the commissioners’ PMLR agreement with TriMet. PMLR supporters say that even if approved, the measure would only affect future transit decisions and not PMLR.

The ballot measure is the most recent attempt for opponents to stymie PMLR, which is scheduled to begin operations by 2015. The estimated $1.49 billion project is already under construction. Earlier this spring, PMLR cleared a hurdle that last winter appeared uncertain—the federal government finalized the $745 million in PMLR funding intended to cover half of the project’s cost. Additionally, the Oregon Legislature has committed $250 million in lottery proceeds, and other state entities have pledged nearly $50 million; Metro will pay $119 million; Portland, $55 million; TriMet and the city of Milwaukie have committed 47.7 million and $5 million, respectively.

Plans to build PMLR were devised decades ago as part of a larger transit system overhaul that could eventually include light rail from Oregon City to downtown Portland and on to Vancouver. From the beginning, light rail supporters have said the system would reduce congestion and environmental impact, as well as promote economic development.

Opponents, however, counter that those benefits have not materialized. Light rail has not proven to reduce congestion. In fact, it’s estimated that as little as one percent or less of Portland Metro residents with access to light rail actually use it, and PMLR’s environmental impact study explicitly states that the project will not reduce congestion. In terms of economic development, Metro estimates that 14,500 jobs will be created during PMLR’s construction. Those jobs may be temporary but they will give way to more economic development. Opponents, however, argue that light rail itself has not demonstrated that it promotes long-term economic development. Instead targeted and generous tax subsidies are largely responsible for any economic growth long light rail corridors.

There’s little question that Portland Metro will continue to grow and its transportation infrastructure will face significant challenges in coming decades. Disagreement has arisen over how best to meet the region’s transportation needs. On its website, TriMet cites the area’s projected population growth of one million and the addition of nearly 100,000 new jobs by 2030 as important reasons a robust light rail system is needed. Opponents, however, say that adding more light rail is not the best and most cost-effective solution. Among other things, the project’s cost is prohibitive. If history is any guide, the projected cost of $1.49 billion could as much as double by the project’s completion. In the last 15 years, PMLR has been preceded by four light rail projects, all of which were significantly over budget. The Westside light rail, for example, was as en estimated 225 percent over budget.

Moreover, the cost of light rail doesn’t end at the project’s completion. Light rail systems are significantly more expensive to maintain than bus transit. That’s because light rail involves maintaining rail tracks and stations in addition to upkeep of rail cars that cost millions of dollars. Across the United States, cities are running out of money to maintain light rail systems and are as much as $100 billion behind in maintenance and repairs. That prospect worries PMLR opponents on a number of levels. Among other things, MAX users don’t fund any of the light rail construction and maintenance, nearly all of which is funded by local, state and federal taxpayers. Most significantly, TriMet currently faces major budget shortfalls and unsustainable pension obligations, and is already cutting bus services. Given the construction and maintenance costs associated with light rail, many favor enhancing the region’s bus transit rather than adding even more expensive light rail. The bus system is already in place and related maintenance costs are limited primarily to the vehicle, which is a fraction the cost of a light rail car.

PMLR opponents also contend that designing a system that feeds residents downtown defies the trajectory of Portland Metro’s economic development. Decades ago, downtown Portland was the primary hub for area economic activity. Today, however, roughly 90 percent of Metro jobs are located in the suburbs, leaving downtown with mainly government offices, restaurants, hotels and motels, and smaller shops.

The future of this critical issue may be determined by the actions of Clackamas County and alternatively citizen input through the initiative process. This makes 2012 a significant year to monitor.

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