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Clackamas County puts off streetcar decision

Lake Oswego mayor asks county to postpone making a decision

Clackamas County commissioners have decided to wait until early 2012 to consider supporting a potential streetcar line between Portland's south waterfront and Lake Oswego's Foothills area.

At a county meeting Thursday, Lake Oswego Mayor Jack Hoffman requested that commissioners 'postpone consideration of this matter until the concerns raised by Lake Oswego and the city of Portland are addressed by the project team.'

'I spoke with Mayor (Sam) Adams this morning and he and I are in agreement that no further action should take place on the current (locally preferred alternative) until the concerns and conditions are addressed in the next six to eight months by the project team,' Hoffman said.

An endorsement of the potential streetcar line would not represent approval of funding or building a specific project, but instead would support a more detailed study of the streetcar over enhanced bus service or making no major transit improvements in the Highway 43 corridor.

The Lake Oswego and Portland city councils have approved the ongoing study of the streetcar line - on a conditional basis. Lake Oswego, for instance, plans to conduct a community survey on the topic and to hold a citywide advisory vote by May 2012. Councilors want a plan that details the role development fees and urban renewal money, along with income from the potential redevelopment and economic activity in Foothills, might play in financing.

City leaders also 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 overall project costs. The Willamette Shore Line Consortium, made up of the cities, Clackamas and Multnomah counties, the Oregon Department of Transportation, Metro and TriMet, bought an abandoned rail line along the Willamette River in 1988, anticipating the need for transportation alternatives to the physically constrained Highway 43.

County commissioners said they want the same questions answered before endorsing the streetcar recommendation.

'In order to be comfortable approving a locally preferred alternative, I need to have some more information,' said commissioner Ann Lininger, a Lake Oswego resident. 'My feeling is fundamentally there are three key interests Clackamas County has in the streetcar project: One is making good use of Highway 43 to alleviate congestion, another is responding to the aspirations of people in our communities, and a third is making really wise use of public investment.'

On top of the issues highlighted by Lake Oswego and Portland, county commissioners outlined additional questions they'd like addressed. Those include considering whether affordable housing could be part of Lake Oswego's plan for the Foothills district. The county would also like more information about the project's possible economic impact, in terms of minimizing construction impact on existing businesses in the area as well as supporting local contractors and manufacturers with new work opportunities.

Key among their concerns was the need to recognize West Linn as a stakeholder in the project. Commissioners want assurance that TriMet will keep full bus service from Oregon City and through West Linn to Portland, rather than reducing a bus line and requiring a transfer to the streetcar in Lake Oswego as proposed.

And they want to know how the project fits into solving transportation issues in the larger Highway 43 corridor, from Interstate 205 north to John's Landing in Portland.

West Linn City Councilor Teri Cummings echoed some of those concerns.

'The West Linn City Council is very concerned about the potential impacts that a sizeable, intense, terminal-based development in Lake Oswego might have on West Linn citizens and businesses that depend on the integrity of the Highway 43 corridor,' she told commissioners.

'We feel it is critical to our long-term viability that public transit options through our community be retained and improved,' she said. 'The streetcar plan would cause our riders the inconvenience of multiple transfers to reach the same downtown destinations. … We have a very hilly city. It's not easy to use the bus as it is. Adding in transfers, I fear we will have even less use. We will have more cars on Highway 43.'

After the meeting, Hoffman said the transit project team is now in a 'pre-preliminary engineering phase' of work. That phase will include exploring a possible single-track streetcar line in some areas, which could be cheaper and more sensitive to environmental and historical resources; until now, the focus has been on a two-track line.

'We have concerns about the scope, the size, the financial and environmental issues,' Hoffman said. 'It may not have to be a $458 million project.'

Project manager Doug Obletz said he doesn't know whether changes to the proposed route could affect projected ridership numbers or travel times.

'It's something we need to study,' he said. 'If you have too much single-track, you'll have trains backing up waiting to use that section. But we believe it will be possible to have select or discreet sections of the alignment as single-track without impacting headways of the trains.'

The project team also plans to re-examine assumptions used to estimate project costs.

'We're going to take a fresh look at the entire design,' Obletz said. 'One point of consternation was the cost of this project. We'll be examining every aspect to see how the cost could be reduced.'

Officials will also have better information about Foothills' development plans if they wait a little longer. The 107-acre district is planned to anchor the end of the streetcar line in Lake Oswego. But the city and Foothills property owners are still studying whether the area's redevelopment is financially feasible.

'One of the challenges we've had is being out in front of the Foothills planning process with the streetcar project,' Obletz said. 'This is a positive thing, because it allows Foothills to complete planning work.

'It puts the two projects in proper perspective. The Foothills development is a major driver of transportation needs in Lake Oswego, and, up to this point, we haven't known much about Foothills.'