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The lessons of light-rail planning

Eight years ago, I sat through a series of meetings, luncheons and forums about a proposed light rail line that would link a major eastern metropolis to its suburban neighbor. The 62-mile line would require negotiations with freight companies, blasting through the side of a mountain and cooperation from several local governments. Nonetheless, the price tag in 2000 was $2.2 billion.

The project still hasn't been built, but watching light rail plans there and in other major cities can provide some valuable lessons in Portland and Milwaukie.

Like trying to figure out what it will cost. I don't know if they're still planning the light rail line I mentioned, but you can be sure that no one in this country is building 62 miles of light rail track for anywhere close to $2 billion. Since the turn of the century, a combination of rising raw material costs, rising gas prices and rising insurance premiums have driven new construction prices higher and higher.

The financial figures TriMet released last week illustrate this point. For each of the three Milwaukie light rail alignment options, the agency released a base-year figure that would apply if they were able to start construction immediately. By following the current time line, which calls for the line's completion in 2015, the costs increase nearly 50 percent over the base year. While it's imperative that TriMet secures a safe and efficient alignment, the staggering increases in construction costs make it equally important that construction gets under way in a hurry, because it isn't getting any cheaper.

Eight years ago transit agencies also had something else going for them - greater support from the federal government. At the turn of the century, if light rail projects landed on the Federal Transit Authority's funding list, they could count on the federal government ponying up 80 percent of the project cost. The current administration is putting less of an emphasis on such projects, and the FTA is now only shelling out 60 percent of a project's cost, leaving a much wider gap for state and local governments to make up.

The change is a philosophical difference in administrations, and who knows, it could change with different leadership in a year. But for now, if you want to build light rail, the federal government is only paying for 60 percent. Unless you want to build it in Iraq. Then you might have some leverage.

Another observation is that once you've proven you can build a successful line, it's easier to get funding. Eight years ago a congressmen told me the FTA's funding supply was like a rusty spigot. It was hard to turn on, but once you did, you could secure a steady flow of money. That was the reason why cities like San Francisco and Portland, with existing light rail lines, were able to secure money to build new ones. Cities without a proven track record had a harder time securing funding. That Portland has been able to secure federal funding for five lines over the past several decades is a testament to TriMet and the light rail system. Yes, the agency must solve its safety woes before it brings a new line to Milwaukie, but its success over the years is apparent. The feds consistently fund TriMet projects, and other cities look to Portland as an example of the way light rail can succeed.

That is why other major cities are still trying to figure out how to build their first light rail line, while Portland-area leaders are thinking about where they'll build next.

Anthony Roberts is editor of the Clackamas Review and Oregon City News. He can be reached at 503-546-0745 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..