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MAX price tag calls for decision-making pause

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The staggering price of connecting downtown Portland and Milwaukie by light rail should prompt the entire region to call a time-out 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.

Westside MAX, which opened in 1998, cost $963 million. On its way through Beaverton to Hillsboro, the Westside line travels almost double the distance that Milwaukie MAX is proposed to cover, but before Westside MAX could get to Washington County, TriMet first had to tunnel through Portland's West Hills.

In more current terms, the Milwaukie line is estimated to cost more than twice the $575 million cost of on-going work to add light rail to the downtown Portland transit mall and take 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, including 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, including inflation. 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 is funded by 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.

Milwaukie MAX does compete for $250 million in state lottery funds and some regional dollars that might be dedicated to other needs.

Citizens have a hard time comprehending why we can routinely expand light rail yet do not address congested roads or repair potholes. Or why school buildings remain overcrowded throughout Tigard, Beaverton, Tualatin and Sherwood but are decaying in urban Portland. Or why it takes years to study improving highly congested Highway 217, only to have proponents told it will take more than 50 years to cobble together sufficient funding from current funding sources. Or why a multi-year effort to plan a connection between Interstate 5 and Highway 99W bypassing gridlocked Tualatin and Sherwood struggles for regional support.

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 agrees that the funding and decision-making process 'is not always rational.'

But we better make it so, soon.

If not, even worthy projects such as linking Clackamas County neighborhoods, Portland's South Waterfront and the east bank of the Willamette in Southeast Portland 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 time-out 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.