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Support TriMet plan; say no to city

Our Opinion

Portland voters are being asked in the Nov. 2 election to approve the purchase of some major items of equipment. In one case - the purchase of TriMet buses - we think the request is justified. But for the other measure, the answer should be: not yet.

Voters in the city of Portland should reject Measure 26-117, a $72 million property tax measure that will pay for a new fire station, fund replacement of old firefighting equipment, including aging fire rigs, and replace an antiquated emergency communications system.

This measure is not outlandish. With an estimated tax rate of just under 14 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, the measure would cost the owner of a home assessed at $250,000 about $35 a year. But when the economy is as tough as it is, the case for voting 'yes' must be supported by demonstrated need and improved use of taxpayer funding.

While we greatly value public and firefighter safety, we don't think that a sufficient case has been made that fire safety has been a problem or will become a problem without approval of this $72 million measure. When times improve, we suggest that the city of Portland renew this request before voters. But the city should first reduce the overall dollar amount by contributing some general fund appropriations.

In contrast, we support Measure 26-119, a $125 million bond measure proposed by TriMet to replace old buses, improve bus stops and shelters, replace older LIFT buses that serve disabled and elderly riders and modernize communication systems. The measure has an estimated tax rate of 8 cents and would result in an additional $20 in annual taxes on a home assessed at $250,000.

The need for this investment can be measured by the mood of transit riders across the region who are actively calling for more bus service. Many are angry about recent cutbacks in transit service as TriMet's payroll tax revenue has declined with the depressed economy.

The transit measure would allow 150 older, high-floor TriMet buses to be replaced with low-floor buses that are more accessible to elderly and disabled riders. Greater use of traditional buses by those specific populations may reduce some use of special LIFT buses - which serve elderly and disabled riders with door-to door service. It costs almost 10 times more to serve riders with LIFT buses than it costs for them to use regular bus service - so TriMet could enjoy operational savings once the new buses are in motion.

Meanwhile, the measure would fund 100 new LIFT buses and would enhance 300 bus stops around the region, making them safer and more accessible to the public.

The result is that the region would have better and more accessible bus services for elderly and disabled riders - services required by the federal government - and TriMet also would lower its costs. In turn, we think those savings could be used to help restore bus service that's been cut.

To be frank, TriMet has lots of issues to deal with, including the cost of building light-rail lines; its overall budget; safety; and the cost of its health care benefits paid to employees. (To be transparent, Steve Clark, president of the Portland Tribune and Community Newspapers, is a member of the TriMet board - a group that ought to tackle these issues with a sense of immediacy.)

But given those acknowledgments, an important vote is before the public. Portland-area voters have traditionally studied and approved measures that have a demonstrated need and whose investment provides improved services and cost savings. This investment in buses fits that definition precisely.