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City digs for money to keep streetcar on track

Crossing TriMet's new bridge carries a $10 million connection
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Cars can drive on the original Southwest Moody Avenue until the new elevated version on the right opens next month. It will eventually include car lanes and tracks for both Portland Streetcars and MAX trains.

City transportation officials are scrambling to find $10.5 million to complete the Portland Streetcar connections to the transit bridge TriMet is building across the Willamette River.

The connections include tracks, signals, overhead electrical lines and automatic trip-stop equipment on the existing streetcars. All are needed to allow the streetcars to enter, cross and leave the bridge when it is finished in 2015, completing the planned Streetcar Loop around the inner city.

The bridge will carry MAX trains, TriMet buses, pedestrians and bicyclists over the river as part of the estimated $1.49 billion, 7.4-mile Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail line. It will cross the river south of the Marquam Bridge, between South Waterfront and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

The $10.5 million is only part of the money still needed for the loop. An additional $20 million is also required to buy four new streetcars and build a turnaround in the Lloyd District to manage all of them effectively. The final $20 million is not needed until after the bridge is completed, however.

Transportation officials are searching for additional funds at a time when the Portland Bureau of Transportation is cutting its overall budget. Mayor Sam Adams ordered an immediate $7 million cut in early October because of declining state gas tax revenue shared with the city, a major source of PBOT funding.

Early this year, the total cost of the city's Close the Loop project was $37 million. Since then, TriMet has agreed to pick up the $6.6 million cost of installing streetcar rails and related equipment in its new bridge.

TriMet sees coordinating the two projects as a top priority. The transit agency is building and will operate the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project, but its funding is coming from a variety of partner agencies. The streetcar is a Portland program, although TriMet provides the drivers and other support.

'Installing the streetcar components now eliminates the need to close the bridge after it is finished to them later,' says TriMet Project Manager Dan Blocher.

Closing the loop

The City Council has already identified a potential source for approximately $5.4 million of the remaining needed funds in the city's transportation system development charges assessed against property owners in the Innovation Quadrant planning district approved by the council in July. The quadrant covers portions of the inner west and east sides of the river, which includes OMSI, Oregon Health and Science University and Portland State University.

The system development fee funds are intended to pay for infrastructure projects that improve transportation in the quadrant. Other potential projects include realigning the southern end of Southwest Water Avenue, building a multi-use trail from Southeast Clinton Street and 12th Avenue to the river, installing a bicycle track and landscaping along Southwest Broadway, and landscaping Southwest Fourth Avenue.

The council has not yet agreed to tap the quadrant funds for the work, however. Nor has a source been identified for the remaining $5.1 million. In fact, transportation officials are still reviewing the yet-to-be completed work to determine its exact cost.

Funding the Close the Loop project is in addition to the $50 million the city has already committed to the Portland-to-Milwaukie light-rail project. City funding comes from a variety of sources, including urban renewal funds, state gas tax revenue and Innovation Quadrant development charges. The city is also donating land valued at $5 million to the MAX project.

Work continues on the streetcar extension on both sides of the river as transportation officials search for the $10.5 million. In South Waterfront, the city is in the final stages of elevating and rebuilding Southwest Moody Avenue, in large part to align the streetcar tracks with the new transit bridge.

That $51.3 million project is funded by a $25.3 million federal grant, $12 million from the Oregon Department of Justice and $11.7 million in city funds. The rebuilt street and new streetcar tracks are scheduled to open on Nov. 1.

Streetcar work is also continuing just east of OMSI. A new streetcar bridge from the rebuilt Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard Viaduct is nearing completion. A new streetcar station is also being built there.

'Money is committed'

The additional $30.5 million is not needed to complete the Portland-to-Milwaukie line, however. That is not the case at the east end of the project, where funding questions have been raised in Clackamas County and the city of Milwaukie.

Although the Clackamas County board of commissioners has agreed to contribute $25 million to the project, the source of the money has not yet been identified. Commissioners recently passed a resolution saying they would not seek urban renewal funds to pay for their share of the work.

It is also unclear where the Milwaukie City Council will find the $5 million it has committed to the project. The five-member council recently split 2-2 on whether to send the issue to city voters. Mayor Jeremy Ferguson recused himself from the vote because he works for TriMet.

Blocher says the transit agency is not worried the financial issues will sidetrack the light-rail project. He says both Clackamas County and the city of Milwaukie have pledged their shares in binding contracts called intergovernmental agreements.

'The money is committed,' Blocher says. 'The only question is where it will come from.'

Attorneys advising the commission and council agree, warning that TriMet could sue the local governments if they don't provide the money.

Pretty normal

TriMet has started work on the Portland-to-Milwaukie project even though it does not have all of the money in hand. In fact, TriMet has only received $379 million in project funds. The Federal Transit Administration, which is expected to fund 50 percent of the project, is not scheduled to sign its funding agreement until next year.

Blocher says it is not unusual for TriMet and other agencies to begin construction projects before all the money is in hand, even large projects. Blocher says the same thing happened on such other TriMet project as the Interstate 205/Portland Transit Mall Project and the Interstate Avenue MAX line.

'It's pretty normal that funds come in over the course of the project, sometimes even after they are finished. In those cases, money is borrowed to cover the costs,' Blocher says.

The work that has already started includes construction of Willamette River piers for the transit bridge, relocation of utility lines along the route and the purchase of some properties needed for the project. All the work is needed to keep the project on track and meet its construction deadlines. The Federal Transit Administration has approved the work with documents called 'letters of no prejudice,' Blocher says.

'That's what was done on the past projects, too,' Blocher says.