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Transit dilemma calls for millions

South Waterfront's ready

Although the City Council spent much of the summer arguing over whether to increase the city's share in the Portland aerial tram by $5 million, the bill for the rest of the transportation improvements needed in South Waterfront - an estimated $170 million - has not yet hit.

That's almost three times the total $57.5 million cost of the tram, most of which is being paid by the Oregon Health and Science University.

'It's a lot,' city Transportation Commissioner Sam Adams said of the $170 million figure. 'It's a big number.'

Projects on the table include street improvements as well as a new Interstate 5 offramp over Southwest Macadam Avenue that will relieve congestion along the major access road to the development area, said city transportation planner Greg Jones.

The city is working out a fee on new development in the district that will generate $65 million, more than a third of the overall transportation bill. However, it has not figured out where the rest of the money will come from.

Adams said the city hopes to make up the difference by patching together state and federal funds, a local improvement district funded by landowners, and other fees and charges that are yet to be determined.

'The work is only just beginning,' Adams said.

Whereas the city paid only about 15 percent of the tram costs, it is not clear what portion of the transportation bill will be paid by Portlanders. Adams said the transportation bureau he oversees doesn't have a lot of spare money to put into the improvements, since the city has other needed projects dealing with a hefty maintenance backlog as well as congestion hitting 'crisis' levels.

'I don't have significant resources both to deal with Portland's transportation crisis and put extra money into South Waterfront,' he said. 'So the goal is to generate as much of the resources from state and federal sources and the South Waterfront district (landowners).'

Adams said that while the $170 million figure is only a rough estimate, it's important to start talking about it now. 'It's a big number,' he said, 'but it's a doable number if we start the financial planning now and not wait.'

While negotiations over how transportation costs are divvied up still are only preliminary, the topic already is controversial. Since 2004, South Waterfront landowner Zidell Marine has filed several lawsuits against the city to protest the roughly $2 million in fees it is being charged to fund the tram.

The company operates a barge-building facility just north of the tram station at OHSU's first building in the district.

Zidell's attorney, Edward Trompke, declined to comment, as did Mark Moline of the city attorney's office. However, Adams said that based on a conversation he had with company owner Jay Zidell over lunch a few weeks ago, the litigation, while technically focused on the tram bill, has everything to do with the upcoming nontram transportation costs.

Fairness questioned

The $170 million figure is the price tag projected for the 20 years it is expected to take to fully develop the district. According to Adams, Zidell is concerned that since it has no plans to develop in the first few years of the plan, when the cost of projected improvements will be less, it will be forced to pick up the tab for the more expensive projects that will be built later.

'Mr. Zidell is fundamentally expressing a legitimate concern of what is the city's plan to develop this infrastructure,' Adams said. 'It isn't fair necessarily to leave it to the properties who are the last to develop to incur the higher cost.'

The city may, however, be nearing a compromise of some sort with Zidell. Bob Durgan of Andersen Construction, which works with Zidell, expressed confidence that talks between the two sides would bear fruit without going to court. 'You can't fight over this thing forever,' he said. 'You have to solve it.'

Assuming the city can forge a compromise between landowners and the city on a transportation funding plan, even that will not cover all the costs necessary to make the district work.

That's because access to South Waterfront is so limited that more than 40 percent of rush-hour trips will need to be made via mass transit, bike or on foot.

'It will definitely have to be higher than 40 percent to make the district work,' said Jones, the PDOT planner.

The transportation ingredients needed include a streetcar line, which already is nder construction, high-frequency bus service and a light-rail line stretching from downtown Portland to Milwaukie that is projected to cost more than $550 million, including a new Caruthers bridge expected to cost well over $100 million - an expense not included in the $170 million estimate.

Bridge, light rail still up in air

Details remain murky. Besides not knowing how or when light rail to Milwaukie could be funded, transportation officials still are not sure where to put the bridge.

Currently its west end is slated to be near the base of the Marquam Bridge, with its east end allowing for a stop at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. But there are discussions of whether the west end could be moved south, closer to the Ross Island Bridge, in order to make light rail more accessible to South Waterfront commuters.

The bottom line: Condos already are being built and sold in South Waterfront based on a development plan with a lot of blank spots in it.

Assuming all the pieces come together, rush-hour congestion in South Waterfront should be no worse than the rest of the central city. Jones said, 'I think it will be similar to downtown in terms of traffic.'

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