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All aboard: Council takes streetcar to the next level

While the city plans to move forward, it will conduct both a survey and a vote on the controversial regional project
by: VERN UYETAKE Kay Kerr, with Brad Kerr next to her, listens intently during the Lake Oswego City Council meeting Tuesday evening on the Lake Oswego to Portland streetcar issue. The Kerrs are among a sizable group opposing the streetcar.

The Lake Oswego City Council voted 4-3 Tuesday in favor of supporting a potential streetcar line between Lake Oswego and Portland - but not without conditions, including holding a citywide vote.

The endorsement inches forward a years-long effort to improve transit along Highway 43. It does not mean the council has approved funding or building a specific project, but instead supports a more detailed study of the streetcar over enhanced bus service or making no major transit improvements in the corridor.

The Portland City Council voted in favor of the measure Wednesday.

Other governments will also have a say before the Metro Council makes the final decision on whether to move ahead, a vote expected later this year.

Calling the streetcar idea controversial might be an understatement. Of almost 100 people to testify at a public hearing in Lake Oswego last week, about two-thirds opposed the project. Of those who returned for the city council's discussion Tuesday, many sported anti-streetcar stickers.

Mayor Jack Hoffman said his support of a public vote showed a change in his 'approach' to the transit decision, which followed the release of a draft environmental impact statement outlining benefits and costs of the alternatives.

'The DEIS has given us data, but it has not brought us together as a community,' Hoffman said. 'Over the next 10 to 12 months, we must decide if it makes the community better, if it makes economic sense.'

The council's decision, reached after about three hours of discussion, included a list of requirements to be met at different planning stages of the project.

In addition to hiring a consultant to conduct a survey and holding a citywide vote by May 2012, council members want an updated appraisal of the Willamette Shore Line right of way, where the streetcar would run, and which represents a substantial portion of the local partners' contributions to project costs.

They also want a financial plan de-tailing how development fees and ur-ban renewal money, along with income from the possible redevelopment of the Foot-hills district, might pay the local share.

Financing and property value information should be available by late this year or early 2012, said Doug Obletz, project manager.

'That would allow the council to make an informed decision about these key issues,' he said.

Meanwhile, the city and Foothills property owners are studying whether redeveloping the area with new housing and businesses is financially feasible, and whether it could pay off without a streetcar helping to spur economic activity.

More information on Foothills is due this fall. The district is planned to anchor the end of the streetcar line in Lake Oswego. That's why several council members wanted to hold off on a public vote until next year.

'We've teed up and are in the process of developing a framework plan for Foothills,' city councilor Bill Tierney said. Without that report, due in September, a citizen vote 'is premature.'

'We have committed to spend money on the Foothills project; this is a decision that has already been made,' Tierney said. 'So, let's frame the questions appropriately and get to some substantive answers.'

The supporters

Foothills is key to project proponents' touting of the streetcar's potential to bring economic benefits.

Councilor Donna Jordan pointed to redevelopment and infill in that area, on the edge of downtown, as a way to keep the amenities Lake Oswegans enjoy today.

'We need to broaden our tax base,' she said. 'Foothills development offers a way for us to broaden our tax base without going into neighborhoods and doing things we don't want to do.'

Instead, she said, people could enjoy more 'walkable neighborhoods.'

'More and more people want healthy lifestyles. … They want to be able to get to services and parks and things close to home. They want to save money on their expenses by cutting down on vehicle miles and gasoline bills and the expense of having two cars,' Jordan said. 'I think we owe it to our citizens of the future to be able to provide as many of these walkable neighborhoods as possible.'

Councilor Sally Moncrieff spoke in favor of the project's environmental benefits.

'The streetcar is the best choice for the environment because it moves us away from fossil fuels,' she said. 'It has been recommended to us by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Oregon Public Health Institute, the (city) Natural Resources Advisory Board and the Sustainability Advisory Board.

'While I share the concerns of Lake Oswego residents about the $12 million to $18 million in projected costs, I believe the streetcar's many merits justify moving it forward as our locally preferred alternative. I believe the streetcar is a sound investment in Lake Oswego's future.'

Councilor Tierney said additional analysis will help resolve remaining questions.

'I personally want a streetcar to come to Lake Oswego, but I do not know if we can afford it,' he said. 'We know it is expensive, but we don't know Lake Oswego's share. Federal support is critical but we don't know if it is available. I want answers.'

The opponents

On the other hand, critics have questioned the need for any transit improvements, the possible environmental impacts and the project's overall expense.

The streetcar has also found opponents in West Linn, where residents are worried about changes to bus service; a proposed Lake Oswego transfer for West Linners taking public transit to Portland might push more people to simply drive, critics contend.

If the streetcar line comes to fruition in the next five or six years, the costs, including design and construction, could reach $458 million, with much of the funding expected to come from the federal government.

Lake Oswego's share is estimated at $12 million to $18 million over the course of the project, with at least $2.5 million to be spent for planning and design over the next few of years. The city will split this year's estimated $470,000 for a new right-of-way appraisal and other planning work with Portland.

Councilor Jeff Gudman stressed that funding the design and construction of a streetcar line could lead to footing the bill for its ongoing operation. Even if the cash came out of the Lake Oswego Redevelopment Agency, which taps urban renewal money instead of general fund dollars, other planned projects could suffer.

'My issue is not whether the streetcar is a nice thing,' he said. 'My issue is how do we pay for it and where does the money come from?'

Councilor Mike Kehoe questioned the streetcar's costs, the impact on the city's character and ability to jump-start economic development. Overall, he said, trying to force the project to fit doesn't make sense.

'Shouldn't Lake Oswego be determining whether there's a need for mass transit and where there's a need for development rather than the other way around?' he asked. 'There's no way in the world I would take this large of a risk for an uncertain outcome and uncertain operating model.'

Councilor Mary Olson suggested the council should focus on other initiatives, especially in tight financial times.

'We have a beautiful downtown, beautiful parks and a beautiful community because we have developed our town in a prudent way in good economic times,' she said. 'We will have more responsible development that will be appropriate and economically feasible at the right time.'

In the meantime, Olson said, 'We have many unsolved problems in our city. We have the (West End) building, we are looking at a new library, we have huge water projects coming up - if you think your utility bills are high now, just wait. We have a new public safety building we need to build, and we need to redo our maintenance yard. This is a matter of priorities.'

The streetcar, she said, is too risky: 'It's a bad project.'