Metro group takes on traffic knot
Task force wants a vehicle fee and bonds to pay for the work
A Metro task force wants to use bonds and a $15 regional vehicle registration fee to come up with $521 million for new freeways and transit projects.
After adding state and federal matching money to the mix, the additional revenue could mean up to $1.2 billion in new transportation construction in the Portland area, the task force told the Metro Council on Thursday.
The list of the task force's recommended projects includes widening several freeways to three lanes and improving local roads and mass transit.
The task force's proposal marks the first step in what may turn into a regional effort by Metro to find money for transportation improvements.
A role for Metro in raising money for transit has never gone past the discussion stage. It is seeing new life now because officials have grown increasingly frustrated at the state's inability to provide new money for repairs and improvements.
Metro considers the issue at the same time local governments will consider the Portland-Vancouver I-5 Strategic Plan, which calls for widening Interstate 5, a light-rail loop through Clark County and a new bridge over the Columbia River.
What Metro will do with the task force's proposal remains uncertain. But don't expect the Metro Council to act quickly because the Legislature might come up with solutions of its own. Gov. Ted Kulongoski this week vowed to ask lawmakers for transit money.
'We need to see what they do for transportation for the region and the state,' said Mark Zoltan, a Metro spokesman. 'Then we'll assess where we are.'
But given the state's budget problems, regional leaders aren't optimistic about any significant assistance from the state and may take matters into their own hands.
Metro Executive Mike Burton appointed the task force in July. Representatives come from all over the region, including Clark County, Wash. Only seven of the 24 members work in government, underscoring the group's desire to offer a private-sector perspective on what's needed.
'This wasn't a group of government officials or policy wonks,' said Jay Waldron, president of the Port of Portland Commission and the panel's chairman. 'It was a business group that wants to get the job done and have it survive in the court of public opinion.'
The task force's proposal calls for a specific set of projects paid for by a specific source of money. Once the projects are done, the money is shut off. This means that the proposed $15 vehicle registration fee, levied within the regional government's boundaries, eventually would expire and no new bonds would be issued.
Here is a summary of the task force's recommendations:
• Highway projects: The task force wants to widen four stretches of freeway from four to six lanes: U.S. Highway 26 from Oregon Highway 217 to Northwest 185th Avenue; I-5 near Delta Park; the whole length of Oregon 217; and Interstate 205 from West Linn to I-5.
The report also calls for two new highways, the proposed Sunrise Corridor from Interstate 205 to new developments in Damascus and a connector road from I-5 to Oregon Highway 99W near Tualatin.
• Community projects: This element would improve congested intersections throughout the region, add sidewalks and improve neighborhood commercial districts.
• Transit projects: The task force recommended assisting several mass-transit projects, including a rapid-transit bus line along Oregon 99W; the Washington County commuter rail; light rail from Portland to Milwaukie; and light rail from the Gateway district to Clackamas Town Center.
The task force also proposed a special citizen watchdog group to monitor the project and how the money is spent. This 'accountability committee,' as it's called, would help improve the project's credibility and its chances of winning approval from the public, Waldron said.
He would like to see the panel staffed by cynics.
'Put someone on it who's really skeptical about light rail or a bike person skeptical about roads,' Waldron said. 'Let them look at every dime.'
The task force wanted a list of projects that could be completed quickly and with a big impact.
'We didn't get into a debate about whether freeways mean more cars or fewer cars or any of that,' Waldron said. 'We looked out the window, and we saw cars stuck in traffic. We're not interested in any pie-in-the-sky project. Just what's doable.'