Residents need to be wary of the end game that Metro appears to be playing
Do future residents of the metro area want to be packed into an increasing number of multi-story and even high-rise condominiums and infill residential developments, or would they prefer a variety of housing and workplace choices?
The Metro regional government is on its way toward answering those questions as regional leaders determine how to accommodate an estimated two million or more residents in the next five decades. Yet, we are not completely comfortable with the direction being discussed so far. We are bothered by an emerging theme that increased density is much of the solution for dealing with growth: Greater and greater density.
Metro is close to completing a 'regional infrastructure analysis' that purports to show that the cost of building new sewer lines, roads, water systems and school buildings is higher than it would be to make use of existing systems to absorb new growth. This would seem to be an easy conclusion to reach - of course it's cheaper to use what we have than to build all new infrastructure.
But metro-area residents need to be wary of the end game here.
Suburban areas need investment too
Allowing for suburban community growth is not the same as advocating for suburban sprawl.
The region has carefully planned for development to occur in areas that have been added to the urban growth boundary in recent years - including the North Bethany area above Highway 26 in Washington County, on Cooper Mountain, on the backside of Bull Mountain, south of Tualatin-Sherwood Road, as well as in Damascus, Gresham's Springwater and Pleasant Valley communities.
Metro officials rightly point out that such development in these new areas require massive investment in roads, sewers, water lines and schools. And at present, there are few sources of funding available for such infrastructure.
That's where the ongoing 'infrastructure analysis' would seem to come in handy. Preliminary results from this examination indicate it would be cheaper to capitalize on existing infrastructure, which in turn would mean more development along transit lines, more infill in established neighborhoods, more downtown Portland towers and greater concentration of growth in the central cores of suburban cities, including Lake Oswego, West Linn, Beaverton, Tigard, Tualatin and Hillsboro.
In short, more density.
Look at what $5 billion buys
No one argues that the region shouldn't capitalize on existing infrastructure. But it is wrong to believe that future residential, commercial and industrial development in established city centers will not require additional, substantial public investment. Just consider what's being planned for Portland to allow for regional growth: A new MAX line to Milwaukie, which will serve the South Waterfront area, at a cost of $1.2 billion; the Big Pipe sewer project, with a price of $1.4 billion; and the Portland streetcar extension, at a cost of $147 million.
Toss on top of that an estimated $1.3 billion to $2.8 billion to upgrade Portland's elementary and middle schools and another $422 million to fix Portland's decaying streets and you can begin to see that growth -no matter where it occurs - will require monumental investments in infrastructure. Just think what $5 billion dollars could accomplish if dropped into the middle of North Bethany or Damascus. And don't forget the $100-plus million that Lake Oswego's interceptor project is going to cost.
As Metro's process moves forward, regional leaders ought not declare a preference for one type of growth over another, and they should not allow their economic analysis of infrastructure costs to morph into a single-minded political justification for more infill development.
The region requires a balanced plan for growth - one that includes both density and strategic investments in new suburban growth - to maintain livable, economically viable and complete communities.