MAX price tag calls for pause
The staggering price of connecting downtown Portland and Milwaukie by light rail should prompt the region to call a “timeout” and determine a more rational way of selecting and funding important infrastructure projects. The Milwaukie MAX line will cost an estimated $1.2 billion to $1.4 billion when constructed in 2013 — more than twice the $575 million cost of adding light rail to the downtown Portland transit mall and taking MAX south along Interstate 205 to Clackamas Town Center. The actual cost of Milwaukie MAX will be determined over the next several months as decisions are made regarding the line’s actual route, where it will end and where — among five options — it will cross the Willamette River on a new bridge. The project’s price tag greatly exceeds the cost of the region’s other light-rail lines for numerous reasons. The section including the new bridge, which is intended to carry MAX, the streetcar, bicyclists and pedestrians — but no cars or trucks — will cost approximately $340 million. Funding other projects not so easy Even if it earns 60 percent federal funding, the project is spendy. And it is proceeding with such apparent ease that it stands in stark contrast to other public priorities, including paying for new highways or repairing existing roads, funding urban services to areas added to the region’s urban growth boundary, and providing for new public education and health facilities. It would be grossly inaccurate for us to suggest that MAX expansion competes for federal funding for roads, sewers, schools, hospitals or water treatment plants. It doesn’t. Federal transit dollars are dedicated to transit. And we understand the strong argument that if Portland does not seek federal light-rail dollars, it will be bypassed and the funds will go to other U.S. cities. But the truth is that the general public doesn’t understand these distinctions. Citizens have a hard time comprehending why we can routinely expand light rail yet not address congested roads or repair potholes. Or why school buildings are overcrowded in the suburbs or decaying in urban Portland. Or why it takes years to study a bypass around Newberg-Dundee, or a new Interstate 5 bridge, only to have talk of tolling poison the idea for some. Bring rationality to the process Even light rail’s architects admit the trouble. “It’s a difficult story,” TriMet General Manager Fred Hansen says. “And we don’t do a very good job of explaining.” Metro Councilor Robert Liberty says the funding or decision-making process “is not always rational.” But we better make it so, soon. If not, even worthy projects such as linking Milwaukie, the developing South Waterfront and the east bank of the Willamette in Southeast Portland via light rail may suffer a public backlash if other major needs, such as roads, schools, public health facilities and suburban infrastructure, are not provided for as well. The region can’t simply keep matching local, regional and state dollars just because we risk losing a federal-light rail match to another U.S. city. “It’s not just dollars and cents,” Hansen says. “We need to reconcile roads and transit and do both.” We think to do just that on all public infrastructure fronts, the region should call a timeout and determine how to appropriately, and in a timely way, address more needs in addition to light rail — regardless of the availability of federal funding.